This Japanese pop duo is your favourite new klezmer band

When one thinks of traditional Eastern European klezmer music, young Japanese sisters dressed in colourful outfits accompanied by a giant stuffed pig – and an accordion – don’t normally come to mind.

But that could very well be the gimmick behind Charan-Po-Rantan, comprised of sisters Koharu and Momo Matsunaga, who look to transcend cultural barriers with their unique style of music.

When Koharu was fourteen years old, she was exposed to an instrumental version of Hava Nagila and was instantly drawn to its unique melody. Eventually, her and Momo formed Charan-Po-Rantan – a Japanese expression which means “unreliable, careless or apathetic.” In an interview with The CJN (despite the language barrier), the sisters explain how their love affair with klezmer began. In Japan, the genre appeals to the nostalgia-seeking “older generation,” Koharu explains, but for youth, “it’s a fresh style of music.”

Judging from their popular YouTube videos – one, for example, which boasts nearly half a million views, features Parisian glamour set atop quirky colourful settings backed with a Jewish-sounding soundtrack – fresh is most certainly an appropriate term to describe it.

An early inspiration for the sisters was a ’90s Japanese klezmer orchestra called the Betsuni Nanmo Klezma Orchestra, who sang in Yiddish. Momo describes how her mother bought all of the group’s albums, which she and Koharu warmly embraced. When Momo was still a student, she apparently “blasted their music at full volume and danced to it while walking to school.” Other inspirations include the No Smoking Orchestra (a Balkan beat outfit) and contemporary groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

At first, Momo didn’t quite understand what Hava Nagila was all about. She then came to understand the song’s joyous motifs after learning it’s often sung at weddings and celebrations. Rest assured, when Charan-Po-Rantan perform it in Japan, “everyone seems to be very excited, although they wouldn’t [necessarily] know the meaning of its lyrics,” she says.

According to the Japan Times, Koharu began playing the accordion (not a common instrument in Japan) after hearing it at the circus at the age of seven. “I told my mom, I want that thing that stretches in and out,” she says.

Appropriately, a strong musical inspiration for the band is Cirque de Soleil, which both sisters cite as worldly and all-encompassing. When producing their own music, the sisters say they’re “unaware of any genre or style.” Their colourful costumes, created by their illustrator mother Aki Matsunaga, are also inspired by the circus.

Since the band’s first overseas performance, Charan-Po-Rantan have toured in the United States (including a performance at South by Southwest in Austin), England, Canada and other countries. Both Momo and Koharu describe their Canadian tour – they performed in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – as a great experience. Koharu particularly views Canada “as a special place, since the headquarters and the founders of Cirque du Soleil are from Canada.”

In a feature on the band, the Wall Street Journal notes that most trending bands in Japan are “slickly packaged by music-industry professionals.” But Charan-Po-Rantan have managed to find fame by doing music their own way. “Being original is always important,” Koharu says. “We only produce music that we are passionate about.”