Levi Chen — composer, guitarist and founder of the trio Celtic Zen (with harpist Lisa Franco and cembalist Michael Masley) — is a first-generation Chinese-American who, though born and raised in the Midwest, has lived in countries as diverse as Taiwan, France, Italy, and Switzerland. Chen speaks five languages.
Chen was already a world traveler (his family visited grandparents in Taiwan) by the time he began studying guitar at age ten. In 1981, the rebellious teenage Chen was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland for his junior year. This, he says, turned his life around and expanded his horizons. Encouraged, he returned to the United States to attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied graphic arts, architecture, and music with musicologist Roland Wiggins. In 1984, Chen spent 11 months attending the Syracuse University Abroad in Florence, Italy. Here, he learned to speak Italian and began to play music as a minstrel in the Piazza Signoria. In 1987, Chen moved to Boston, where he got a job at E.U. Wurlitzer Music & Pro Audio; this job afforded him the opportunity to interact with music students from the Berklee School of Music and to learn the technical side of music. In March of 1989, Chen returned to Taiwan for several months to pursue a dream of becoming the Chinese Jimi Hendrix; it was a disappointing visit, given the quality of the Asian pop scene. His next move took him to the south of France where he played in a band called the Immigrant.
In 1990, Chen moved permanently to Los Angeles. He founded his own label, Yin Yang Records, in 1993. His first album in 1994 was Liquid Gardens: Tao for solo acoustic and electric guitar. Liquid Gardens: Haiki Moon featured Chen on the guitar, fretless bass, Chapman stick, and gu zheng. 1995’s Meditation of My Soul showcased Chen’s guitar/gu zheng duets. In 1997, Chen released Celtic Zen, also the name of the group which includes harpist Lisa Franco and Michael Masley on cymbalom. Ten guest musicians helped contribute to the album’s unique sound — all acoustic except for the Stratocaster guitar.
Chen’s two main instruments are the Fender Stratocaster guitar (circa 1976) and the gu zheng, a Chinese instrument similar to the Japanese koto, but having steel strings. Through years of experimentation, Chen has managed to mimic the gu zheng sound on the guitar and vice versa; through use of delayed echoes, he can play both instruments at once in a call-and-response style. Chen can also create other sounds on his guitar: whales and dolphins, cello, erhu (Chinese violin), and other synthesizer sounds. Chen is also proficient on Chapman stick, acoustic guitar, fretted and fretless bass, synthesizer, and piano.
With his long, flowing black hair, Chen resembles Kitaro in appearance. Chen still performs long hours as a street musician and considers music-making his form of meditation. As to his spiritual beliefs, Chen comments, “I believe in LIFE, truth, beauty, peace, God, and nothing. I’m a Romantic Zen Taoist Rasta.”