Can a music festival help save the world? HOCO Fest is willing to try
Pairing impeccable programming with a focus on sustainability, Tucson's intimate HOCO Fest inspires an appreciation for life at that sets a universal example
The mere act of survival has taken up too much brain space these past years. HOCO Fest is a remedy to that utilitarian existence. Taking place in the arid climes of Tucson, Arizona, the setting is hot, dry and blossoming with life in the form of its local community. They are well acquainted with existential threats and driven, confident and pragmatic about building a thriving future. You’ll find no nihilistic attitudes of self-destructive partying at HOCO; it’s all about getting the good times rolling.
Regeneration is at the heart of HOCO '22. The previous edition in 2019 was its biggest, coinciding with the 100 year anniversary of the festival’s home at the storied Hotel Congress (best known for leading police to a notorious bank robber by nearly burning down and, allegedly, being haunted). It grew into a multi-venue venture spread out across the city, and plans were afoot to keep on building into the new decade. “But once the pandemic hit, it felt like a complete reset,” says the festival’s director Matt Baquet.
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While the Arizona state government took a devastatingly lax approach to lockdown, Baquet took time out from music to work in construction and farming, before returning to event production with a crystalised focus. The festival scaled back to the hotel grounds, featuring three distinct venues with their own unique charm, but its ultimate vision grew even bigger. “COVID-19 showed us how fragile this current world really is; we need to act urgently to start regenerating our planet and society rather than the degenerative habits we have fallen deeply into,” he says. “Tucson feels like it's ready to take this challenge on, there is a general positivity in the air.”
Turning the tide on climate catastrophe might seem ambitious for a four-day festival held in a 104-year-old hotel, but real change doesn’t trickle down, it grows from the soil up, as Guru Das Bock from the DRY Co-op puts it in his presentation at the weekend’s Sonoran Desert Sustainability Summit. “Making positive daily habits at an individual level is a powerful component of change and cumulative efforts create the biggest effect. It is critical for the future of humanity and the planet to begin normalising this work,” he says. HOCO Fest lends lifeforce to the grassroots sustainability movement, inspiring protection of the planet with vivid reminders of why that’s worthwhile.
On the opening night, Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar shreds his unique style of guitar wizardry to a marvelling crowd, who are blessed from above by fans spraying cooling water vapour through the balmy 33°C night. In the blazing days, ticket holders have access to a nearby pool, where they can make the foot-sizzling trip between relaxing on sun loungers and floating in the cool water while local DJs provide a bumping party soundtrack.
It’s only Friday when King Woman’s Kris Esfandiari declares HOCO as the best festival ever during the doom-rock band’s gripping performance in Club Congress, powered by entrancing vocals and intense moshing. Cuban-American rapper La Goony Chonga follows, flipping the mood to playful, neoperreo bangers. "Last time I was in Tucson two fights broke out, so I hope that happens again," she jibes between tracks while twerking, setting off air horns and throwing bling into the crowd, who are more interested in having the time of their lives.
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Throughout, sustainable practices are organically present: including a zero waste clothing stall, the Awareness Ranch booth which takes in trash for appropriate sorting, and an afternoon dedicated to the Regenerate AZ discourse programme. “Music and art festivals leave lasting impressions on the viewers and attendees. Memories formed by lived experience will last a lifetime. By bringing simple practices of sustainability and a hopeful message to the forefront of these events we raise consciousness and can positively affect our culture,” notes Guru Das Bock.
Recalibrating minds with music is in effect on Friday night. Mexican Jihad and Lao, of Mexico City’s NAAFI collective, seem to be bidding to break a record for the amount of genres you can fit into one set. 20 Fingers into Nick León, Madonna into The Chemical Brothers, and Rosalía into Gloria Estefan are just some of the whiplash blends they pull off as they hurtle through post-rock to punk-pop via reggaeton, Latin pop, UK rap, hip house and big beat.
“In Mexico City specifically there has been some years of development musically, but also in the way people like to be amused by electronic music. I think that in the US there's some sort of snobbiness above the dancefloor, a little bit of overthinking,” comments Lao on previous experiences playing stateside. HOCO was different, with a crowd willing to follow them every chaotic step of the way. “It's always a pleasure to have some time of people's attention to experiment and try to redefine what we think a dancefloor is,” adds Lao. Fellow Mexican DJ Regal86 follows, as Club Congress stays open beyond 2:AM for the first time ever. The hotel’s liquor license doesn’t extend further, but it does it for the culture not the bar takings, serving free water and soft drinks to the handful of hardcore dancers who remain transfixed to his set of hypnotic techno.
Mexican artists make up a sizable chunk of the bill. While ‘The Wall’ - initially Trump’s, now Biden’s - stands at the nearby border as a grim symbol of white supremacy that is wreaking ecological havoc on the surrounding lands, HOCO reaches across it, collaborating with likeminded crews and events such as Monterrey’s Festival NRMAL, which has been pushing sustainability practices in Latin America.
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“Having the opportunity to export Mexican talent to other countries is very important to us, because building these bridges impacts more than just the creative community, it's something that sends an important message,” says NRMAL director Moni Saldaña. “Music has the power to connect people and open up necessary conversations. We have to take the chances we can to impact more than just our immediate communities.”
The music curation across HOCO is impeccable, with a diverse range of sounds - such as house and footwork, hardcore and hip hop, neo-Sufi and salsa - represented by leading lights of each genre. “We are seeking uncompromised artists, rooted in their sound and their community. Diverse and passionate freaks from all walks of life,” says Matt Baquet. They all bring something unique to the table, filtering inspiration far and wide.
Many of the best sets come from Arizonan acts. Los Èsplifs, purveyors of “Oddball Latinx Rhythms”, are heaps of fun, led by charismatic frontman Caleb Michel. “I see a bunch of people who don't know what to do with their bodies... copy the people that do," he quips as they play a jaunty cumbia number. REY and PSYPIRITUAL rep Tucson’s impressive rap scene, the Sonido Tambó crew scratch up a storm behind a mind-boggling setup that includes three laptops, three mixers and four decks, and AZ legend Djents spins a typically eclectic mix of from his treasure trove of a record bag.
Saturday night kicks into action with Armand Hammer followed by Kush Jones serving up a powerful one-two punch of stars from New York City’s inimitable rap and dance music scenes in Club Congress. On the outdoor Plaza Stage, Warpaint are a lead singer down, due to illness, but still delight the biggest crowd of the weekend with their dreamy psych-rock. Through the early hours, Huerco S and Aurora Halal are forces of nature behind the decks. The former inspires a stage invasion of uninhibited dancing with sultry pop vocals blended into racing techno, teeing up the following set of slamming, rounded kicks.
“Having a multi-day festival in a smaller city like Tucson feels really special. Surreal to see friends performing on the same ticket as renowned international artists,” says DJ and producer Altrice, who’s been catching the ear of Dan Snaith with his deep and melodic productions. The appreciation is mutual. “The festival just had that eclectic vibe truthful to music and culture lovers, there was this aura surrounding the festival that went beyond genres,” says NAAFI’s Lao.
On the final night, Arooj Aftab is transcendent. Earth feels like heaven as her shimmering vocals cross languages and centuries of storytelling, backed by the plucking of a giant harp. Kareem Ali’s closing set is equally sublime. His live house music is filled with emotion, resonating through gorgeous chords, uplifting vocals and passionate performance. The crowd is sparse but fully engaged, as the remnants of the weekend’s stamina crew drift through to the bittersweet end. Even when it dwindles to three or four people, Kareem plays his heart out; you can hear him say thank you from the back of the room as the claps fade out. Putting in your all to inspire at any given level reflects the underpinning of HOCO 2022. It has a start-local mindset that sets a universal example.
On Monday, the festival wraps up at the nearby Awareness Ranch, where a small forest of new trees is planted to regenerate the desert land and help offset the event’s emissions. Actions like this alone won’t save us, but they all add up.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Editor & Digital Director, follow him on Twitter