Koharu Matsunaga used to be a fixture on Tokyo’s busking circuit, belting out tunes on her button accordion with her gypsy brass band at popular tourist stops like Ueno Park.
The main songwriter and the older half of the sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan rarely performs on the streets these days, but that free-wheeling vibe is very much alive in the group’s circus-themed eclectic brand of pop music that meshes klezmer funk, Balkan beats, French chanson and vaudeville cabaret with hints of Showa Era nostalgia.
And if their live shows are any indication, the duo’s ties with the city’s busking scene are an invaluable asset in realizing their creative vision.
“Our street artist friends joined us on stage the other day for a circus-like show,” Koharu tells The Japan Times at her management firm Sony Music Artists Inc.’s Tokyo office, sitting next to her sister and the unit’s lead singer, Momo.
“We ultimately want to create a circus,” she says.
Charan-Po-Rantan’s ethno-influenced musical style is an anomaly among the slickly packaged J-pop artists associated with Avex, Japan’s largest record label, which signed the duo in 2014 to the surprise of their fans.
But the move reflects the sisters’ desire to step out of their busking days and reach a wider audience.
“I had no trouble making a living as a street artist, but at one point I realized that people were paying us to play cover songs, not original music,” Koharu, 29, says. “That’s fine as a performer, but as a musician I began to doubt whether it was the right path.”
Charan-Po-Rantan’s subsequent success attests to how the sisters’ decision to go mainstream is paying off. The group’s music is frequently featured in films and television — over half of the songs on their most recent album, “Mirage Collage,” have commercial tie-ups — and the two are currently on a nationwide tour that kicked off on June 2.
“Back then we simply wanted to enjoy the moment and make some cash. But oh my, how people can change,” jokes Momo, 25, who began singing with Koharu when the band formed in 2009.
Momo was still in high school at the time but has since grown into a versatile performer in command of a range of vocal expression that she deftly navigates to enhance Koharu’s compositions, whose witty lyrics defy the sisters’ colorful, fantastical outfits made by their mother, an illustrator and costume designer.
The duo’s musical history traces back to when Koharu was 7 and attended Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria.” Intrigued by the show and the troupe’s accordionist, she asked her mother to buy her the instrument. “It was love at first sight,” Koharu says.
In junior high school, her mother brought home a record by jazz saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu’s band, Komatcha Klezmer, which got Koharu hooked on the music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
“Hava Nagila” remains a staple at Charan-Po-Rantan’s shows. Other influences include Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla, she says: “I was only interested in music that featured the accordion.”
A turning point came when Koharu was 17 and applied for Tokyo’s street performance program. Introduced in 2002 under then-Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, the Heaven Artist initiative grants licenses to musicians, acrobats, mimes and other artists to perform at designated public locations across the city.
It was an ideal opportunity for Koharu, who had dreamed of becoming a street performer since childhood.
Modeled after similar plans adopted in Paris and other European cities, the program requires applicants to submit a written application and audiovisual sample, followed by a rigorous audition. Only 29 out of a total 240 applicants were accepted when Koharu passed the tests back in 2005.
Pere Jovanov, a classically-trained Macedonian cellist who was recently performing in Ueno Park — Koharu’s old haunt — says he failed the first time he applied in 2014. He was accepted the following year and is now a full-time street musician.
“I’ve played in orchestras and other groups, but I feel comfortable playing on the streets,” he says. “It’s fair — if people like your music, they give you money. If they don’t, then no money.”
The Heaven Artist program appears to provide a decent living for Jovanov and the lucky ones who are granted licenses each year. Now in its 16th year, there are currently 446 registered performers.
On the very best days, Koharu recalls she and the Minority Orchestra — which later evolved into Charan-Po-Rantan’s all-women backing band, Cancan Balkan — would rake in hundreds of thousands of yen rocking several sets.
“Considering the amount of money people can make, I think some oversight is necessary to prevent performers from fighting over time and space,” Koharu says.
The sisters have come a long way since then. They’ve played the prestigious Nippon Budokan and the Fuji Rock Festival. They flew to Texas in 2013 for South By Southwest and performed at the Japan Society in New York in 2015. Last year they returned to the Japan Society for a Godzilla tribute, covering 1960s pop duo The Peanuts’ “Mothra’s Song.”
“There’s no need to limit our market to Japan,” Koharu says.
As lifelong fans of Cirque du Soleil, the sisters were ecstatic when they were chosen last year as a special supporter to the Canadian company’s touring show, “Kurios,” currently running in Tokyo.
“I’ve already watched the show three times,” Koharu says.
“There’s so much hope in their story,” Momo adds, referring to the troupe’s co-founders’ rise to global success from their humble beginnings as street performers. “It’s a path we’d like to follow,” she says.
That doesn’t mean the sisters have forgotten their roots. Once or twice a year, Koharu returns to Ueno Park to perform with Cancan Balkan.
“We usually make the announcement on the day or the night before, and then disappear as soon as we’re finished performing,” she says. “We’ll probably do it again this year.”
Charan-Po-Rantan’s tour hits Saitama Hall on June 7 (6:30 p.m. start) before moving on to Hiroshima’s JMS Aster Plaza on June 9 (5 p.m. start), Fukuoka’s Imuzu Hall on June 10 (5 p.m. start) and across the country. All shows cost ¥4,500 in advance and ¥5,000 at the door. For more information, visit www.charanporantan.net.