Ray Charles was the innovator of soul. Rei Mastrogiovanni wants to innovate ska; he says it’s in his blood.
“I heard a monk in Kishiwada, where my family is from, hitting a mokugyo (wood block in the shape of a fish) and it was on the upbeat. It was like ska!” he explains, referring to the distinctive “ska stroke” guitar rhythm. “They’re the only monks in the world that do that. So my ancestors must have listened to the upbeat every time there was a religious get-together.”
A musician, event organizer and self-described “ska innovator,” Mastrogiovanni was born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and an Italian-American father. At age 8 he moved to Oregon, where he began playing music. His first encounter with ska was The Toasters album “This Gun For Hire.” After just a few seconds into the first track, he was hooked. “It just felt right,” he says.
In his late teens, Mastrogiovanni started the ska-punk band Pocket Face, and toured across the United States and Japan, eventually playing to a crowd of 10,000 at the Hasunuma Festival in 2002. Pocket Face broke up soon after, but Mastrogiovanni marched on solo, moving to Tokyo after being signed to a major Japanese label. He would leave the major scene after three years, though, deciding instead to pursue a more independent, communal-based music career focused on innovation. This eventually led to the launch of Spacetrain, an event he co-organized with the Shibuya Glad venue in 2012.
Held almost every three months, Spacetrain brings together both established and new acts in Japanese ska, as well as bands from other genres. Alumni include pop-punk band Shakalabbits, all-girl ska act Oreskaband, and veteran ska punks Potshot, as well as overseas artists such as The Bennies from Australia and Angelo Moore, of Fishbone fame. Combining bands, DJs and food, the event oozes with Mastrogiovanni’s personality. He handpicks everything from the artists right down to the jerk chicken. The event serves as both his love letter to the genre, and as a crystallization of his hopes to nurture the stagnating ska scene in Japan.
“All the ska giants, like Kemuri, broke up. And the young bands just kept playing the same type of ska punk from the 1990s,” he says. “People didn’t seem to be interested in doing new stuff, and there were no icons to follow.”
Spacetrain will take place again this weekend, and this time Mastrogiovanni will be pulling out all the stops. The festival will be held not only at Glad, but also at adjacent venues Vuenos and Lounge Neo, making it the biggest edition yet. The lineup boasts more than 20 acts, including the aforementioned familiar Spacetrain faces, as well as some non-ska groups, such as art-punk band Merpeoples and electro-pop duo Jumicchi.
Mastrogiovanni will also be performing, although he stresses that the main act of Spacetrain is never him but rather the final jam of the night, which brings all the artists together on stage for an improvised session.
“The jam is the headliner,” Mastrogiovanni says with a grin. “I control it in a way, just to keep it entertaining for the audience. Maybe there’s a drummer on stage first and I say, ‘Play your best beat!’ Then we just start putting it together. I wonder what’s going to happen at the festival. So many bands. It’s going to be good.”
Spacetrain Festival takes place at various venues in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Feb. 23 (1:30 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance). For more information, visit www. spacetrain.jp.