zingara cover

What do Gypsys, Bo Diddley, Robert Plant and Pittsburgh have in common?

Chuck Owston

The new CD is called "Zingara"-- what is the meaning behind that?

Zingara is an Italian word for "Gypsy Woman." However, my first encounter with it was in the book, "Hour of the Dragon," by Robert E. Howard. In his mythical Hyborian Age, Zingara was an exotic land. So it has both referenes. I always liked the sound of it.

(Laughing) I should have known that. Is this traditional Gypsy music?

Not only gypsy (Romani) but also Eastern European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern, with one Celtic and one Medieval Italian song thrown in. On my (Facebook) timeline, I analyze every song on the CD as to their origins. It's like I posted my own liner notes online. All the songs are traditional in some way -- no original material written by me. Also, it's all instrumental. No vocals.

You are well known for exploring a wide variety of musical styles. Is this something that you always wanted to do?

Yes, I never wanted to get stuck in one genre. I do whatever interests me at the moment -- so I've done rockabilly, psychedelic, hard rock, viking metal and world music. Though not at the same time. Plus, the scoustic troubadour thing. I worked 7 years at Pgh. Renaissance Festival.

I was thinking about your love of traditional music and that came to mind as well. Is there a genre that you are particularly fond of?

ChuckOwstonProbably Celtic/ British Folk Rock music, which I've primarily done since 1986 in one form or another. I love songs that tell a story. Ghost stories, murder ballads, eerie tales -- they are staples of that sort of music.
I think my interest in Romani (Gypsy) music comes from the fact that my grandfatrher played with gypsies at their camp near McKeesport back in the years before World War I. He passed when my father was only 11, but I grew up hearing tales about him playing with the traveling people.

You play so many styles-- do you find similarities between them that you can explore?

Yes, most definitely -- Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have a love of traditional music. I met Robert Plant at the Cropredy (England) Festival in 1992, and we had a long chat about traditional roots music. Cropredy is the annual festival of Brit Folk Rockers Fairport Convention. I've been to 3 of them (1992-2001-2007).

I bet that was an exciting experience, talking shop with a true legend?

Yes, and when he heard I was from Pittsburgh, he said, "Ah, the tunnel and then the city! What a view!"

(Laughter) Everyone loves that view! Of course, Led Zeppelin was known for their folk influences-- were they a big influence for you in your music?

Not so much as others -- I liked them a lot, but my biggest influences were Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Tyrannosaurus Rex (not the T. Rex electric thing so much), early King Crimson, Bert Jansch. Zep would be somewhere after all them. Plus there were a lot of one off or onscure bands here in the USl ike Midwinter, Stone Angel, Mellow Candle, Albion Band. Most people have never heard of them.
Lately I've been listening a lot to Irdorath Folk Band from Belarus. They have a rockin' Medieval Slavic sound. I love Slavic Harmony singing -- bands like Grai (Russia), Polyanytsi (Ukraine).

Do you find that your diversity as an artist can sometimes be a hindrance-- for example, someone who knows you for your folk music might be shocked to hear you playing metal?

I never found it to be a hinderence to do various things. I never play for large audience and I usually promote my stuff in such a way that people know which hat I'm wearing. I really like the folk metal bands -- Arkona (Russia), Turisas (Finland) Battlelore (Finland), Tyr (Faroe Islands) -- are favorites. That's what we based Bonfire Night on. Part of our sound was the fact that I played by guitar in a modal tuning, either EBEEBE or DADDAD. They give you that drone sound. It changes the total way you approach the guitar. Very primitive.
On Zingara, I play the "Son of Log" in DAddaa.

Is that a Tom Coleman creation? The instrument, I mean? (Coleman is an artist and self-taught Luthier of sorts who experiments with a wide variety of materials.)

Yes it is.

Can you describe it for us?

Son of Log was made out of piece of cherry wood that Tom found buried in his back yard. He hollowed it out, put a face, a top and bottom on the log, stuck a neck on it and strung it up.. He says it sets music back 10,000 years.
It's #3 of a series -- "Log," "Bride of Log," and Son of Log."
Then he built Plank out of a piece of wood that was floating in the Mon river, and 2 Log Cellos. The man is AMAZING! He loaned me "Son" and this winter I recorded the album using it.
the reason I say 'hindrance" is, the industry tends to pigeonhole artists for marketing purposes, and you tend to break the mold. I don't care at all about the "industry." Never did, never will. probably why I am so obscure. But believe it or not, I have a bit of a following in Eastern Europe.

Which brings us back to "Zingara". You have a love of eastern European music. Is that mostly from your Grandfather?

I think it's in the DNA. All my life I heard that Owston was an English name, and that were were that and Irish/Scots, and German. Then my brother does the DNA thing and we find that we originally came from Denmark. But on my grandmother's side, we have a little bit of Ukrainian. So I think I got it from there.

I find that artists love their songs like their children, is there a favorite on this recording that you just love playing every time?

Yes, the 1,000 year old Turkic song "Dombira." And, of course "Zingara." That's the first one I recorded. The Son of Log has a percussive sound that makes the recording sound like there is a distant drummer playing along with me. Very unique. In Bonfire Night we couldn't get away from playing the ghost ballad "Johnny Scarecrow." One night at the Hard Rock this guy came up to me and said, "Hey, you're that Johnny Scarecrow guy!!!" That was pretty wild.

Those moments are very gratifying. Have you ever been really surprised when something you've done sticks with someone like that?

Many times. What's funny is when I run into someone who bought one of my vinyl records back in the late 60's and tells me what their favorite song is on it. And I haven't played that song in 40 years. I just had a guy from Switzerland e mail me and ask if I had any copies left of my first LP. I haven't had any of those since the early 70's. I have a personal copy, that's all. I met Bo Diddley ayt the Great Valley flea market back in 1986. He was buying up copies of his own albums, because he's lost them along the way.

That's awesome. I have always felt guitar was the only instrument that combines all the elements of music-- melody, rhythm and percussion-- would you agree?

Yes, that's what sets the guitar apart -- you can play anything on it and it sounds good.

You have witnessed many changes in popular music-- what are your thoughts on the current state of affairs?

I love what's happening in rock/metal in former Soviet bloc countries -- there are so many heavy bands drawing from trad roots. Can't get excited about what's on the radio here.
Sick of hearing the same old songs in stores, coffee shops, supermarkets. I loved that stuff at one time, but I'm just TIRED of it. That's why I've found other stuff to explore. I recorded a song with a Russian singer, Olya Lantseva a few years ago. We did a video of it. It's been played all over Russia. I did the music, she did the vocals. We've never met. Check out the Eastern European scene. You will be amazed. Even though most bands sing in their native languages, it's still so energetic, and different. Much more primal.

It seems like foreign rock never gets a fair shake in the States..?

No. It's a VERY limited thing. If I stopped 100 people on the street, 99 of them would have no idea about that sort of music. Maybe 100 out of 100. I'm trying to encourage awareness. I just discovered a wonderful Mongolian girl sing, DaiQing Tana. Found her by accident on YouTube. Her voice blew my mind. Nobody's ever heard of her.

Do you think the language differences account for that?

Definitely. However, Turisas sing in English and so do Battlelore.

You are a wealth of obscure band knowledge. Is there a band that you feel we should definitely be listening to?

Any of the bands I mentioned.

What are your hopes for "Zingara"?

That people enjoy it. That it opens their ears and minds to new, yet ancient sounds. I have no expectations about "fame and fortune" at this stage of my life. It's a piece of art, at this time and place.

It's funny you say that. I just interviewed Joey Granati (of Granati Brothers) and he said the same about his and David's ambient music CD. It ended up charting at #43, so you never know...

I did a version of Arkona's song "Slav'sia Rus" on this CD. A few years ago I did a youtube video of it and sent it to them. They put it on their page and I got over 5,000 hits.

So it would be fair to call Zingara a labor of love?

Most definitely.


Photos: Zos Xavius, Model: Cy Samuel

Chuck Owston will be releasing his newest CD, "Zingara," Friday, June 26, at a special concert, playing the primitive instrument, "Son of Log." Gypsy dancers from Brisance Fusion Trio will be also performing. Also cover girl Cy Samuel and Log-cellist Aaron Pollardz are on the program.

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Category: Spotlight