Pomona’s mini music festival thinks big
The sixth annual event is up against larger rivals but keeps its focus on creativity.
When the sixth Viva! Pomona festival launches on Saturday in the city’s downtown, the tiny but mighty indie event will be competing with massive youth festivals including EDM- and rapheavy Hard Summer and punk mainstay Warped Tour — and will do so two weekends after the tastemaking FYF Festival consumed Exposition Park.
That’s the reality for the festival’s founder, Rene Contreras, who has parlayed the seed of an idea — a DIY version of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — into a micro-festival that celebrates border-blind underground sounds with an under-card focused on the scene in and around the Inland Empire.
“It’s tough,” says Contreras from his home office in Pomona of the big-budget competition. You’re trying to swim in it, and there’s a lot of older, much bigger people swimming in it.”
Among the acts playing Viva! Pomona across the two days are Washington indie pop band Chastity Belt, New York singer-songwriter and the Beets founder Juan Wauters; the long-running L.A.-born, cumbia- and vallenato-inspired band Very Be Careful; the Mexican global bass duo Sotomayor; Argentinian rocker Tall Juan; and Hawthorne-born teen producer and seducer Cuco.
The success of past installments helped Contreras, 26, land a gig with Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, where this year he oversaw the booking for Coachella’s new Sonora stage. That, in turn, has added professional legitimacy to what remains a low-budget Viva! Pomona operation.
Says Contreras of Viva’s production: “It’s the same moving parts as a festival — because it is a festival — but with much less money and much less resources. We make art out of cardboard. We try and decorate the atmosphere.”
The festival has grown enough that it now shuts down part of downtown Pomona in service of two outdoor stages. Music venue the Glass House serves as the festival’s anchor stage.
It didn’t hurt that Contreras grew up a short skateboard ride away from downtown Pomona. As a teen, he volunteered at the Glass House, and connections with the neighborhood’s small-business owners helped him establish trust when he was pitching his first events.
Like the Sonora stage roster, Viva! Pomona’s lineup is dense with acts that straddle borders, languages and gender labels — creative, often bilingual artists who connect with a legion of kindred devotees.
Many reside outside of Los Angeles proper, with Contreras roaming the backyard party scenes and renegade venues in search of young talent. He scrolls through Instagram and Facebook feeds to find, he says, “what local bands are coming up in Ontario, Pomona, Chino, Chino Hills, El Monte, San Gabriel Valley — and also East L.A.”
Case in point, he says, is Cuco, whose rise over the past eight months has prompted a rush of attention.
“He’s headlining the show, and I’m really, really excited,” Contreras says. “He just surfaced in, what, January of this year? And ever since then he’s just been exploding.”
Contreras adds that the artist, who was born Omar Banos, “reps Hawthorne with sort of the same mentality that the festival and I have. He’s a bilingual artist who is representing his home area but is still part of the L.A. community. And he’s covering songs that my grandma used to listen to.”
The combination of international, touring and local bands, Contreras adds, “creates this really unique atmosphere.”
He adds, “There’s creative things glowing everywhere, and a lot of times it’s hard to pursue creativeness, especially if you’re living somewhere like Mexico — or even Pomona.”
“WE MAKE art out of cardboard,” says Rene Contreras, founder of the DIY indie event Viva! Pomona.