“It’s a French guy and an American guy playing Hawaiian music, and somehow it’s a hit in Madison.”
Welcome to Residential, where Tone Madison meets the best acts holding down regular gigs on local stages and decks, from sturdy weeknight house bands to excellent and under-appreciated DJs.
Guitarists Chris Ruppenthal and Cedric Baetche first formed the duo Mal-O-Dua out of a shared love for the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (or more precisely, the intersection of jazz and European folk styles that Reinhardt represents), but from the start it was an idiosyncratic blend of styles. Ruppenthal, a Madison native, plays in Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble and excels in prickly, fleet-fingered, Reinhardt-inspired solos. Baetche, who grew up in Reims in northeastern France, cites the distinctively American fingerpicking style of Merle Travis as his primary inspiration, but also contributes flirtatious, French-language baritone vocals. This blend of swing, country and French music has expanded over the years to include slack-key guitar, a fingerpicking style developed in Hawaii (the term “slack key” refers to loosening some of the strings to put the guitar in an open tuning). The band’s name is a phonetic spelling of “mal aux doigts,” a French phrase for “aching fingers.” Recently Mal-O-Dua has settled into a regular gig at Mickey’s Tavern, playing there from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. This coming Thursday, the two will celebrate a new EP of Hawaiian-style instrumentals, Mahalo Dua, and, weather permitting, will mark the gig’s move outside to the Mickey’s back patio for the next few months. The duo has other shows coming up at Tempest Oyster Bar, La Fete De Marquette and elsewhere, but the Mickey’s residency seems to suit them best: While there’s plenty of history and skill in the music, Mal-O-Dua’s playful, loose style travels well in a crowded, sometimes pretty chatty happy-hour setting. Baetche and Ruppenthal met with me last week to discuss the new CD and how they carved out this particular swing-Hawaiian niche.
Tone Madison: So you recorded the new EP just last month?
Cedric Baetche: In about an hour and a half.
Chris Ruppenthal: There’s this couple here in town who do documentary filmmaking, and they’re actually doing a documentary about the turkeys out in the Atwood area. So they wanted some more music for the soundtrack, like a bed for the movie. So that was kind of why it happened. We’d been kind of working on preparing to do a swing CD, but this opportunity came up and we liked the recordings enough that we figured we might as well press a disc out of them.
Tone Madison: It was surprising to me that you did a release that’s just instrumental and just the Hawaiian side of things.
Chris Ruppenthal: Our game plan all along has been to do a swing CD and a Hawaiian CD. We’ve actually got probably twice that much in the repertoire at this point and it just keeps growing. But this was just a quick-easy thing and it was kind of a no-brainer to press it because they’re nice recordings.
Tone Madison: What made the two of you want to perform this particular mix of styles?
Cedric Baetche: I’ve always been into fingerpicking, that’s my first attraction to the guitar. Then I saw Caravan play one night, and I was asking them, “how come you don’t play at the Weary Traveler?” because that’s where I work. Eventually they came to the Weary Traveler for a couple gigs, then we started hanging out. Some of the same repertoire kind of criss-crosses between gypsy jazz and the fingerpicking I was doing, with some ragtime and old jazz standards that have been country’d up.
Chris Ruppenthal: We went up north to a cottage to hang out, and this was the first time we really had some time dedicated to playing music. This was 2007, I think. We had six songs before we knew it, just in one sit-down. It was fun, and with Caravan, it’s either me or one of the other guitar players present an arrangement to the band, and then we learn it. But with Cedric and I, we just kind of play music and it kind of organically arranges itself. We just were hanging out a lot and playing and that’s kind of how we built the repertoire. And that’s when we were just doing swing music, back in 2007, 2008, through 2010 or something like that. It was basically just getting together, hanging out, eating meats and cheeses and drinking wine and playing music. It was just easy and came together pretty quickly. We kind of had a unique blend, because he’s French, obviously, and can sing in French, and he’s got the fingerpicking, and I’m the American who plays Django Reinhardt stuff, which was kind of our schtick at the beginning.
Tone Madison: How much of the repertoire is original and how much is standards and covers? It blurs together a bit in the set, just because you’re bending everything to a particular style.
Chris Ruppenthal: There’s a fairly large amount of standard repertoire, but a lot of the stuff, Cedric will write French lyrics to a song that’s originally in English, and it might change the meaning of the song.
Cedric Baetche: Or traditional melodies, public domain stuff, just writing words for it.
Chris Ruppenthal: Yeah, Hungarian folk tunes and stuff like that. We’ve got a bunch of stuff like that that’s sort of partially original, heavily arranged originally, but maybe the original music comes from elsewhere or whatever. And there are a few originals that we do.
Cedric Baetche: There’s probably a quarter of the repertoire that’s just us making stuff up.
Tone Madison: What do you guys get out of doing Mal-O-Dua that you don’t from other bands or from playing solo?
Chris Ruppenthal: We’re close friends and we like to hang out and play, and we have a lot of similar music. For me, like I said, it was very exciting to play with Cedric because the arrangements just sort of organically happen. I don’t have a whole concept in mind. We just pick a song and sort of learn it and play it over and over again and the arrangements kind of make themselves. Also, for me, when we first started playing together, it was a good learning experience for me, because I had spent six or eight years playing with Caravan, without a vocalist. Accompanying a vocalist is kind of a different story, even than playing underneath a clarinet or violin. To not get in the way of the singer was an inspiration for me and a cool thing for me to learn at the beginning.
Cedric Baetche: It’s just good fun, really.
Tone Madison: It seems like the looseness of it is a refreshing thing to have, especially if you’re used to a more structured kind of setting.
Cedric Baetche: It’s very recreational. It’s just recreational at this point. That’s very much what Hawaiian music is. It was never really meant to be played in a stadium or theater or anywhere, it was just people playing on the back porch as a pastime. I’ll be just as happy if everything stops tomorrow, and I’ll keep on picking those things for myself in my kitchen on a daily basis, because it feels good.
Tone Madison: The Mickey’s gig is a happy-hour thing, so obviously people are drinking and talking and it’s not always the most attentive vibe. Do you like playing in that kind of atmosphere?
Cedric Baetche: Well, you feed off of the energy of the bar. And it’s funny to realize that some tunes are going to attract a certain attention from the tune, and to kind of realize, “Oh, that tune was a real hit today.” You didn’t see it coming.
Chris Ruppenthal: It is true that Mickey’s is a full crowded bar, but we’ve kind of got that gig to the point where people are coming to see us. Even if it’s a loud situation, there’s a large portion of people that are really in tune with the music, and we know that because we start at 5:30, and come quarter after 5 the bar starts filling out, and as soon as we’re done it kind of empties out for a while. We see familiar faces week after week. So it’s not like we’re fighting a crowd that doesn’t care about us.
Cedric Baetche: We kind of got lucky. We didn’t have to build a crowd. From the first gig we had there, it was packed, and then people just got to like us, I guess.
Tone Madison: And some music works well in that kind of more chatty atmosphere—not everything, but what you guys do kind of meshes with that a bit.
Cedric Baetche: The crowd gets all jacked-up and happy and giddy. Sometimes the last swings of the sets are really wild, we’ll play faster, we’ll play louder.
Chris Ruppenthal: And people applaud for solos and stuff there. It’s definitely, for a bar audience, it’s definitely a listening audience. That’s one of my favorite places to play right now, especially the CD release, hopefully, weather cooperating, will be our first one out on the back patio. We did three or four shows on the patio last year, and those were some of my favorite performances of any gig that I did. It’s really a nice, open-air, but still kind of being in a close space, and really just feeling like the audience is supporting what we’re doing.
Tone Madison: Do you find that the set changes a lot from show to show just based on the mood of the crowd?
Chris Ruppenthal: Our Hawaiian set right now is pretty set. And we took a while to kind of hone in on what works as a good flow. We did go through one complete re-do of the set. During that set, we both have quite a lot of instrument changes. The swing set, we both just play our Nationals, our Reso-Phonic guitars. The Hawaiian stuff, it works a little bit better sometimes if I don’t have to switch ukulele, guitar, and steel guitar between every song. We close out the set with “Queen Of The South Sea Isles,” which is a Hawaiian tune but with French lyrics. It’s kind of our transition into the second set, which is swing. Often, for the second set, we’ve got Tom Klien sitting in with us on accordion to kind of really French it up. As his knowledge of our repertoire is building—and he brings stuff to the band as well—it kind of fleshes it out. Tom pretty much calls that set now.
Tone Madison: It’s an interesting balance of personalities when you play. Chris comes off as really concentrating on the guitar, and Cedric is the more playful one, especially when singing.
Cedric Baetche: Recreational! I mean it! If I wasn’t getting any fun out of it, I’d be doing something else. It’s festive. Those are all melodies that were made to celebrate shit or have a family gathering or a good time. All this music is based on having a good time. It’s all based on self-entertainment, and just catchy melodies—hooks, one after another.
Chris Ruppenthal: Right now we play a Hawaiian set and a French set, and we’re thinking about ways to smash those two together even further. We actually often joke that it’s a French guy and an American guy playing Hawaiian music, and somehow it’s a hit in Madison.
Cedric Baetche: We only started playing Hawaiian music together last August. I mean, I’ve been playing it for a few years. Even though [Mal-O-Dua] is advertised at French stuff, we just went for it, and the response right away was good.
Chris Ruppenthal: We started out with three tunes the first time we played Hawaiian stuff.
Cedric Baetche: Guitar and ukulele, that was it.
Chris Ruppenthal: Just the real traditional slack-key stuff. My wife and I went to Maui last summer, and we actually brought back three ukuleles. I brought one for myself, one for Cedric and one for my wife. It was pretty funny to walk through the airport in Chicago at 5 a.m. with three ukuleles and a hula shirt on. That was kind of the start of it.