Home is where the music is

Contributed photo Four Shillings Short used a picture of their van as the cover of their newest CD ‘The House of White.” -
Contributed photo Four Shillings Short used a picture of their van as the cover of their newest CD ‘The House of White.”
— image credit:

Folk troubadours bring worldly blend to M.I.

By Cody Ellerd
Mercer Island Reporter

For the last 10 years, the closest thing Christy Martin and Aodh Og Tuama have had to a home is their white Dodge Caravan. It houses their four suitcases, 20 musical instruments, sound equipment, their tent and a small cooking stove. The only rent they pay goes into the gas tank, and they always have new neighbors to talk to.

The couple tends to attract a lot of attention on the road. Having turned the van’s exterior into a colorful display of political messages, it’s easy to imagine what their yard would look like, if they had one.

“I like to ask people what their favorite sticker is,” said Martin, 48.

“It’s kind of our way of polling the country.” If you are against President Bush, the war in Iraq, corporate greed or genetically modified food, there are plenty of bumper stickers to choose from. If not -- at least it sparks conversation.

That, Martin believes, is part of the mission of a troubadour.

“You go from town to town and take the music and the stories with you. You find out what the concerns are in that particular place. What’s going on with the farm? How are people feeling? It’s about getting communities back together.”

Political or not, that’s the aim the couple hopes their music serves as well.

Throughout a decade of touring across the United States and Europe under the band name Four Shillings Short, Martin and Tuama have been bringing people out to hear a unique brand of folk music that crosses boundaries, bridges gaps and teaches them something new. They talk about the multitude of instruments and styles they cover, and sometimes, as they did at a show last week for a troop of 150 Girl Scouts, they even let the audience have a go at playing as well.

Martin is an ethnomusicologist who has studied the Indian sitar since the age of 15. Her immediate family includes an opera singer, a professional jazz musician and a hip-hop artist. There is hardly a string instrument she hasn’t tackled.

Tuama, who is also her husband, is a native of Ireland, where he comes from a family of writers, poets and musicians. He specializes in woodwind instruments, with a repertoire that includes everything from tinwhistles and recorders to the obscure Renaissance-era Crumhorn.

When Martin and Tuama met at a San Francisco Bay Area concert in 1985, it was just two weeks before Martin joined Tuama’s band. The result was a blend of classical Indian music, traditional Celtic hymns and American folk that Martin said was a magical fit. She married him soon after.

While their touring takes them to every major city they can make it to, they make a point to get off the beaten path as well.

“We play a lot of rural communities and small towns,” Martin said. “We try to take our music to places that normally wouldn’t get a sitar or hammered dulcimer.” Not every crowd wants to hear about the human cost of war or pleas to bring the troops home. After touring for this long, they know in which towns it’s better to just stick to the music.

But even in places where most people don’t share their politics, they find kindness, curiosity and people willing to share their homes.

“We have loads of friends across the country. We book our shows so that we can stay with them and visit,” Martin said. For that reason, the troubadour’s life suits the couple just fine. “It makes us feel like we’re always going home.”

Four Shillings Short can also be heard on the program “Lunch With Folks” on KBCS 91.3 FM at 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23.

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