Tucson’s HOCO is a world-class example of how radical community resilience can recast what a music festival can accomplish

Credit: C.Elliott
December 5, 2019

Getting off the plane in Tucson, Arizona, the first thing you notice is the atmosphere, and more specifically, its brunt impact on your throat and lungs. Dizzyingly clear, bone dry, and hotly baked, it snaps into focus exactly how drippy and humid the summer in Toronto can be, with its easy tendency for flash downpours and sticky mosquitos, too slick to scrape off already wet skin. 

HOCO, the city’s bravely eclectic—and expertly-curated festival—occurs during the last week of August. By that time, having already endured several months of terrific heat, nearly every person I talk to is exhausted with the summer, and eagerly anticipating the reprieve of a 20 degree winter. It’s a sentiment I cannot get behind. But after a week in the desert I realize it’s one of the few, if not singular, misalignments that I encounter. 

While in Tucson, I learned that parts of Arizona are home to vortexes (vortices to be grammatically correct) which are believed to be swirling concentrations of energy, supportive of healing and self-discovery. Since the 1970s, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society has hosted an internationally renowned and attended showcase for dealers of some of the rarest crystals on the planet. It’s believed that during the show, the oversaturation and amalgamation of so many energy-emitting materials encourages those concentrations of energy to swell. 

Wandering down the historic 4th Avenue in the city’s downtown core, and alongside rolling mountain ranges visible from nearly every vantage point in the city, it’s not difficult to suspend your skepticism and imagine how a city with such a particular geographic identity can invite something comparable to a revelation. Resisting the urge to speak out of turn about a city that’s not mine, I also think  it helps explain what makes HOCO—and its ability to both fold in, and prop up, Tucson’s robust  art and music scene—feel steeped in an exhilarating, and unnamable, kind of cosmic magic. 

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To put it clearly, the spirit of HOCO is familiar and impressive: at the same time it feels like an extraction of the best parts of every local scene you’ve ever encountered, with an forward-moving, perpetually evolving ambition to build itself better and stronger for its community. 

Since its inception, the festival has grown from its home stationed at the Hotel Congress to a multi-venue showcase that snakes its way through the city’s downtown core, rattling every establishment it encounters. This year the festival aligned with the 100 year birthday of the legendary Hotel Congress, which rose to international infamy when it became the site of capture for the John Dillinger.  

But beyond the festival’s stellar musical programming—the kind that last year invited Dean Blunt and Toronto’s very own S.H.I.T, and this year selected a wildly dynamic range of artists like Indiana-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Omar Apollo rewriting the script of silken funk-pop for a new generation; local boys and crusted, old-school death metal overlords Gatecreeper; other local boys, breakout rap-rock hybrid trio Injury Reserve; and Smog frontman Bill Callahan, one of indie rock’s most beloved, and unsuspecting cowboys—HOCO is amenable to exploration. It’s both impressive enough to become a destination spot for those looking for something new and delightfully strange, while also developing a melange of inspired strategies to invite connection points with the festival and everything around it.  At HOCO, you can take a sound bath or a vinyasa flow class class at Yoga Annex. You can attend a DJ workshop, or participate in a guided mezcal tasting. You can have, perhaps, the best tacos you’ve ever had, then drench yourself in kaleidoscopically heavy Detroit techno around the corner.   

While every major festival around the world has finally started having legitimate conversations around the racial and gendered dynamics of lineup curation, HOCO is a case study of the future everyone else is reaching for. Rather than self-congratulatory box-checking and quota filling, HOCO goes beyond mere inclusion to underscore the role of accuracy and intention in how they frame artists alongside each other. 

On every night, at every showcase, the curation rang of a deeply meticulous interest in selecting artists that operate on vanguard of they genres they occupy, with a clear formulation of the politics of being in that space. On the second night of the festival, beloved L.A. hardcore band Show Me The Body and Night Crwlr (the darkwave project of King Woman’s Kris Esfandiari) played before Gatecreeper, mounting a bold counternarrative of who we expect to see, and hear, in spaces that invite challenging and abrasive music. 

On the same night that Montreal duo Pelada launched into a heart-pumping post-midnight set at Club Congress, bringing the spirit of Montreal’s legendary Moonshine parties to the desert, Illinois singer-songwriter Ryley Walker, charmed the patio audience at Che’s Lounge with honey-soaked, dulcet vocals, and delightfully wanky Zappa-esque riffs. And when Tennessee rapper BbyMutha took the stage before Injury Reserve, her energy would have fit well during the Deaf Kids and Minimal Violence show the day before. For four days, the festival challenged the notion of a unilateral, one-size-fits-all model, in favour of an approach that anticipates that you’ll probably like “all sizes” once you’ve tried them on. 

Perhaps the best example of this dynamic was the handing over the keys, of many parts of the festival, to the members of Ojala Systems, a multidisciplinary artist collective, who were an indomitable and impossible to ignore presence throughout the festival, either DJing between shows (or during a pool party), or as the official artist in residence, which this year was group member Mylkweed. 

In their own words, “OJALÁ IS A GROUP OF YOUNG ARTISTS, CREATORS AND CRIMINALS WORKING TO SECURE LIBERATORY AND RADICAL EMPOWERMENT.” Comprised of a multidisciplinary group of musicians, visual artists, DJs, there’s a discerning intentionality to every part of the way the group functions. I learned about a fundraiser for a member’s top surgery, where everyone from queer people to “cholos” attended that raised $1500. When I arrived they were preparing to leave the DIY space near a haunted burial site that had served their homebase for meetings and planning. 

I first encountered the collective performing before Omar Apollo and was struck by their gravity on stage. They channelled the warmth of 90s boom bap, matched with lyrics that distilled big concepts, like anti-black violence and healing from collective trauma, into lyrics you could trace with your finger. Paired with members swapping both vocal duties and styles, and slinky melodies that conjured a blend of genre and geographic touchpoints, they were hard to resist squirming to.

A few days later, parting after tacos, Q, a producer and vocalist in Ojala Systems, handed me a sturdy burlap tote bag filled with stickers, buttons, and zines. Nestled between the pages of Mylkweed’s zine Quiescent was a card outlining a demand from Ojala to the world. On one side read the following: “We commit ourselves to the destruction of colonialism. We are diligent opponents of capitalism. We commit to working against toxic masculinity. We radically oppose rape culture. We will not turn to cops for matters we can handle in our own communities. Fuck the Border Patrol. Fuck the police. Fuck the law. We are Ojala.” The reverse requested a declaration to uphold their requests, with space for a signature along a dotted line for initiation.

In conversation later, Mylkweed and Q told me about not wanting to get pigeonholed as a “woke rap group.” Instead, Ojala are a shining prediction of what the relationship between musicians and politics could look like as the rise of far-right extremism, and an environment in crisis, demand that we recast our politics towards collectivism; where we call each other in rather than call out, reject the latent neoliberalism that props up cancel culture, and root our activism in clear and actionable alternatives, mindful of a person-centered approachs, that pools resources and knowledge to help instruct how small actions can have a big impact. For Ojala, the clear and direct articulation of their politics is a necessary and mandatory and act of survival, firmly rooted in how to fight for their sprawling community.  

On the final day of the festival, during the unofficial HOCO after-party, Matt Baquet—who in many, many ways is HOCO’s beating heart, who programmed shows across the country before returning to Tucson to continue to build something vibrant in his hometown—ecstatic, flushed, and in a signature cowboy hat, in the initial hours following the end of the festival, explained coming into contact Ojala.  “As soon as I met the first one, I was like ‘I need to know all of you,’” he remembers. 

Outside the LSDXO rave, on day second day of the festival, sometime between two and three (or maybe three and four in the morning), Q referred to Baquet as a “sweetheart,” and explained that he had “big papa energy.” It is indisputable. It feels like Baquet is always within eyesight or earshot, exuding indeterminate amounts of warmth, and another source of light in an already baked dessert. He’s everywhere at once cradling the festival and the people who turn his gears. Outside the venue of a show he handed me a junebug that I let roll around my finger, later on he earnestly asked if I’d like to go to Mexico. I don’t think there’s a single person if the city he doesn’t know, or a single person who wouldn’t think to call him in a state of distress. 

But to return to his initial statement, asking permission to know the generation of artists he’s attempting to bring into the festival feels loaded with meaning. Because when you know someone, truly and legitimately, it’s a lot easier to ask them what they need. It’s illuminatingly indicative of HOCO’s ambition to challenge the power dynamics its working to absolve by providing two things necessary for bridge generational gaps in music scenes: platforms and spaces to create freely, and the opportunity to do it according to a new set of terms and conditions. This doesn’t mean that the festival is beyond its own critique, but rather seems as an opportunity to call  into focus the ways it can remain sustainable for years to come.

It’s this articulation of a festival, where you “do” rather than just say, that succeeds at not only naturalizing how we want our spaces of art to look, but reforming them to imagine what they can do. Because while every other festival is focused on rebuilding from the bottom up, HOCO is actively having conversation, and adjusting in real time. 

Perhaps this sentiment came across so vividly because the stakes in Tucson right now are particularly high. For anyone who’s kept an eye on the border politics occurring south, Tucson, nestled less than an hour away from the Mexican border seems like the battleground of some of the gruesome effects of the presidency of Donald Trump. During a panel at the Tucson Museum of Art, amidst an arresting discussion about how to articulate what home is alongside a new vision for the border, one panelist made a gripping claim. 

Presenting the example of how activists might resist against the construction of a border wall, she named the occupation at Standing Rock as an example of how your body is often the best way to protest a physical intrusion. But she also imagined a horrifying and harrowing manifestation of what that might look like in Tucson, where the invincible heat of the desert would be nearly impossible to resist for a length of time; and that under those circumstances, human lives would be on the line. 

It took me a long time to write about this festival because it me a long time to figure out why it left such an impact on me. I think much of it had to do with observing the strength of a community based on its ability to take care of its people, both seasoned and newly invited. But beyond HOCO’s firm adherence to create a forward-thinking and progressive space for high level art, I was struck by a remarkable amount levity and optimism for the future. 

 It made me crave that for my own city in a dizzy, needy, desperate way. It made me want to return to not only do more, but become meticulous about how I could do better. In many ways it underscored the strenuous parts of Toronto —how a city in a state of mass structural flux can seem inhospitable, and looking towards the future can be exhaustive — though Toronto persists regardless. In many ways the festival crystallized how suffocating the  radical act of fighting for art can be, and at HOCO I remembered what it felt like to breathe. 

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