Little surprise that two roaming troubadours summon music from far-flung realms as they fuse sitar with Celtic song, and medieval rarities with contemporary folk. The nomads are husband and wife Aodh Og O'Tuama and Christy Martin of the duo Four Shillings Short, headed to concerts in Downers Grove, Lisle and Wheaton with dozens of instruments in tow and a corresponding treasure-trove repertoire.
"We model our lives after the troubadours of the 13th and 14th century," Martin said. "We have a patronage of friends and family and people who come to our concerts and offer to put us up or get us a concert in their area. It's a wonderful existence to play music in so many places."
The two also love to tent, and their van is equipped to fit their 30 instruments, along with camp stove and requisite gear, ever ready to explore the country's national parks along their travels.
"We've been on the road 18 years full-time since 1997, and gave up paying rent in 1998," said O'Tuama, who grew up in a family of poets, musicians and writers in Cork, Ireland, where he earned his music degree, and then headed to the U.S. on a fellowship from Stanford University in California in medieval and Renaissance performance. He named the duo after a line by James Joyce in "Dubliners."
Martin said their ensemble is unusual in the number of instruments and the mix of music, often pairing ancient instruments with modern tunes and vice versa. Both artists are also composers, as well as song collectors who help ensure great melodies will endure.
Fascinated early in life by Indian classical music, Martin trained for 10 years on the sitar with teachers including a student of Ravi Shankar.
"I came from the medieval and Renaissance tradition, and Christy from an Indian music tradition," O'Tuama said. "Our harmonies are unusual as well. We go unusual places with our art."
Listening to music on their website reveals intricate layering of harmonies and tempos. Shimmering sitar is paired with O'Tuama on woodwind and drum in Robert Burns' "I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose," turned into a love raga.
A sampling of their instruments includes hammered and mountain dulcimer, mandolin, tin whistles, recorders, early woodwinds, bowed psaltery, banjo and guitar.
After a three-year hiatus, they are returning in September to Two Way Street in Downers Grove with material new to the coffee house, and will make their debut at Acorn Coffeehouse in Wheaton next month, drawing songs from their 20 years of performing together.
"The concert at Lisle will be more educational," Martin said of "Around the World in 30 Instruments" for families. "We bring out all the instruments; we focus on the traditional music that would have been played on a krumhorn, sitar, mountain dulcimer, charango."
At their regular concerts, audience participation is encouraged.
"We love singing together," Martin said of the communal experience. "We love the sound of the human voice. There's something so intimate and transcendent about the human voice – singing. … We feel we're always going home wherever we play."