Mal-O-Dua is like two bands in one.
Combining the French gypsy jazz guitar of Django Reinhardt with Hawaiian music, Christo Ruppenthal and Cedric Baetche have come up with something fresh.
“We offer two different sounds,” said Baetche, the French half of Mal-O-Dua. “Some people hire us just for French stuff, let’s say at a dinner party, or a wedding cocktail hour, and some people want just Hawaiian music in their backyard for a block party.”
The vast majority of the music Ruppenthal and Baetche play are their reworkings of old songs. Each has one original song on their newest recording, and they’re working on more.
But even with the cover songs, they always do something different with the arrangement. Both collect old records, and the songs they resurrect, such as the music of famed French chanteuse Edith Piaf, who was most active in the 1940s and 1950s, are so old Ruppenthal and Baetche have to figure out the arrangements for their instruments.
“I decipher music from old records that don’t even have guitars in it,” Baetche said, noting that some songs are arranged only with accordion or piano. “We’re keeping alive old tunes that have been forgotten about.”
Baetche, who uses a fingerpicking style of guitar playing, said he tries to steal as much as he can from the rhythm section and will play the melody by himself at first, and then Ruppenthal will add his steel guitar.
“We rarely play it exactly the way it’s been played or with the same instrumentation,” said Baetche, who’s from a town called Reims in the heart of the Champagne region in northeastern France.
Their music incorporates French swing, gypsy jazz and Hawaiian guitar. Baetche said he and Ruppenthal “take a song from a place and bring it somewhere else it’s never been.”
Mal-O-Dua (phonetically Mal-O-DWA) means “my fingers hurt” in French. People who play a lot of guitar know what it’s like to have sore fingers, so that’s where the joke comes from, Ruppenthal said.
At first, they were going to be called “Mal-O-Mal,” which translated means “my hands hurt.” But there was already someone who wrote a song with that name and took the domain site. “So then we thought about another thing that hurts — fingers,” Baetche said.
“Fingers are more accurate, too. I think it’s funnier,” Ruppenthal added.
Mal-O-Dua is one of Madison’s busiest bands. Baetche and Ruppenthal play a regular twice-a-month gig at Mickey’s Tavern, 1524 Williamson St., on the first and third Thursdays of the month. They also perform the fourth Thursday at the Ohio Tavern, 224 Ohio Ave.
The shows are free, but Baetche and Ruppenthal usually get tipped well by the appreciative crowds.
In the summer, the men make the rounds of the city festivals and concert series.
They travel around Wisconsin and do some regional touring, performing at arts centers, farmers’ markets, parties, libraries and malls.
They generally play about 80 shows a year, or a show every four or five days.
On July 27, they’re booked for the early Behind The Beat Concert Series at the Union Terrace, and on Aug. 9, they’ll be opening for the Justin Townes Earle Select Session at McPike Park, formerly Central Park.
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The pair started out 10 years ago playing French swing music. By the end of summer in 2015 the Hawaiian repertoire started to creep into their sound.
It happened first at one of their Mickey’s patio gigs that summer. They had such a strong crowd response it encouraged them to build up the repertoire.
Three Hawaiian slack key songs landed on their CD “Mahalo Dua,” which basically means “thank you” in Hawaiian.
The Hawaiian music also made it into a friend’s 2015 documentary, “The Turkeys of Atwood Avenue,” which played the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival.
The music dominated that soundtrack and after recording it, Baetche and Ruppenthal realized they had a whole CD recorded. That resulted in the 2016 CD “Duo de Choc,” which in French means something like “the dynamic duo.” The album is a collection of traditional Hawaiian slack key, steel guitar and ukulele music.
It has both French swing and Hawaiian music, as well as songs that blend the sounds. Some songs have French singing and others are instrumental.
While the Hawaiian music is more recent, it’s become their dominant sound.
Ruppenthal and Baetche hadn’t considered how to celebrate 10 years of playing together, but could record a CD soon and have a CD release party. “It would be a great excuse to call it a 10-year CD release party,” Ruppenthal said.
The two met at Mother Fools Coffeehouse, where Ruppenthal was playing with his other band, Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble. It performs the music of Reinhardt and other kinds of early swing jazz music.
Baetche, a fan of old music, would come see the band. One night he introduced himself during a set break and suggested to Ruppenthal that Caravan Gypsy Swing come play at the Weary Traveler, where Baetche bartended. Soon after, they were playing music together.
“So it was kind of an excuse for me at that point to try something different,” Ruppenthal said. “You know, Cedric is a finger-style guitar player and I play with a pick, like a jazz guitar player. And so we were able to kind of try to smash those two sounds together, try to come up with something new.”
There are some French bands that play Hawaiian music, but the men said they know of no one doing what Mal-O-Dua does, blending the music of Reinhardt and French jazz with Hawaiian music.
They both have jobs conducive to playing gigs at night — Ruppenthal has a T-shirt screen printing business and Baetche bartends Monday nights at the Robin Room. He’s also an artist who sells his paintings.
So, they’re motivated to perform as much as possible, Ruppenthal said. “Plus, we have the advantage of being a full band sound with only two of us, so we are easy to book.”
In more intimate settings, Baetche and Ruppenthal will give the audience some musical history and brief explanations of why they do what they do.
After playing an entire set of Hawaiian music at the Brink Lounge one night in February, Baetche launched into a French song and then joked: “Gotta use my citizenship for something good — not just drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, but playing music and giving fashion advice.”
Now, Mal-O-Dua is likely to do a French repertoire but on Hawaiian instruments or a Hawaiian repertoire on French instruments, “and just put it all in a puree sort of,” Ruppenthal said.
When they play a show with one full set of French music and one full set of Hawaiian, it’s “almost like we were another band,” Ruppenthal said. “Like we are opening up for ourselves.”