Meet Rene Contreras, whose Viva! Pomona Crosses Musical Lines

 Rene Contreras is the promoter behind Viva! Pomona, a music festival downtown that mixes local and international bands. (Photo by David Allen)

Rene Contreras is the promoter behind Viva! Pomona, a music festival downtown that mixes local and international bands. (Photo by David Allen)

By DAVID ALLEN | dallen@scng.com | Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
PUBLISHED: August 14, 2018 at 5:58 pm | UPDATED: August 14, 2018 at 6:02 pm

When the first Viva! Pomona music festival drew 400 paying customers to two downtown restaurants and a club, no one was more surprised than its young promoter – although he didn’t let on.

“I was just faking it. I had no idea what I was doing,” Rene Contreras recalled. His inexperience was clearer the second year, 2013, when the festival moved outdoors to Second Street and many people, rather than pay admission, just watched from the public sidewalk. “I was so angry,” the good-natured Contreras said, laughing at the memory.

Still, with its seventh iteration this weekend, expected to draw 1,400, Viva! Pomona is now a tradition. It attracts up-and-coming rock bands, locally and internationally.

And Contreras is carving out a niche for himself in the indie music industry, bridging the gap between Spanish and English-language rock. Viva led to a job curating the Sonora stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where he mixed indie bands with Latin American musicians, and the Chella concert last spring for Indio-area Latinos.

Rene Contreras is the promoter behind Viva! Pomona, a music festival downtown. One site is Shaun Diamond Plaza, where this Pomona-themed mural is seen. (Photo by David Allen)

I’d heard of Viva but hadn’t known of Contreras until reading about the Sonora stage. A story notedthat when Contreras got a text from Coachella’s Paul Tollett inviting him to talk, Contreras had to beg off because he was at Cal Poly Pomona in an economics class. (He’s since been hired by Tollett’s company, Goldenvoice, after completing his degree – at fellow Bronco Tollett’s insistence.)

I met Contreras last fall at the LA County Fair, where he booked bands to perform in an area named Mi Poco, aimed at drawing young Latinos for music, food and coffee. The curly haired, personable Contreras and I talked at length and I resolved to write about him when his annual festival rolled around. So we met up last week for a more formal conversation.

He didn’t start Viva to make money – it does little more than break even – or to make a name for himself.

“It comes from sincerity,” Contreras said. “We were just trying to have an affordable music festival in Pomona.”

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Proudly born and raised in Pomona, the first-generation Mexican-American grew up on the south side in what he describes as lower-middle class comfort. He played Little League at Ralph Welch Park, skateboarded around town, made art projects with his friends and volunteered in the Pomona Teen Values Council, which sounds like something out of the 1950s.

Every year his family made a road trip to visit relatives in Michoacan. But he associated Mexico and the Spanish language with aunts and grandparents, not with his life as a young American, where he was handing out flyers for concerts at the Glass House and organizing backyard concerts.

That is, until he got a Facebook message from someone in Tijuana offering him $800 if he could book three bands and haul them south of the border for the All My Friends Music Festival. Somehow, he made it work, even though, as he put it, “I was 20 years old and looked 15.”

More significantly, he found young Mexicans with whom he could converse about shared interests. “To talk to them about food or Radiohead or art,” he said, “it was a mind-blowing experience.”

He opened up to Latin culture in Pomona and Southern California, learning that there were underground bands with the punk vibe he liked who were fellow Latin Americans. Because they might sing in Spanish, acts were pigeonholed by promoters as if they were playing banda music.

Perry Tollett, Paul’s brother and the owner of the Glass House, was already backing Contreras’ ventures, including Viva! Pomona. Tollett encouraged him to add Spanish music to Viva if that’s what he liked.

The second year, he booked a Mexican-American band from San Ysidro, a move that “opened this enormous portal I never knew existed,” Contreras said. Via Facebook, a band from Mexico City, Los Blenders, contacted him asking to play in Pomona.

“They probably thought Viva! was like Woodstock or something,” Contreras said sheepishly. “It was billed as ‘three stages of music!’”

An early champion of Chicano Batman, booking them for shows after its Rialto-based guitarist handed him a CD at the Glass House Record Store while mumbling, “You don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want,” Contreras began branching out from the Inland Empire and L.A. He attended international festivals for emerging bands, like Hermosa Rudio in Colombia and Epicentro in Costa Rica, to listen to music and chat up musicians.

“He’s just a very likable guy,” Perry Tollett told me. “He met bands and would get invited to visit other cities and see other shows. He’s very interested in music and doing music from an indie point of view, not a corporate point of view.”

Bands from Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Spain have performed at Viva. For many, it was their first time playing in America. If L.A. wasn’t interested, well, Pomona looked close enough.

“These bands wanted to make it in the United States,” Contreras explained. After getting a foot in the door at Viva, “promoters from L.A. see they played Pomona and give them a shot. Dumb as it sounds, it gives them credibility.”

When we met last year, he had just returned from Colombia, where he’d sat on a music panel. The shy Contreras was surprised at all the attention he got, with girls being extra nice to him or touching his shoulder. Later he learned that some were under the impression that he owned Coachella and was rich.

In fact, the budget for Viva is small, and headliners don’t return because they’re on to bigger and better things. Sometimes much bigger.

Cuco, a Hawthorne dream-pop singer whose real name is Omar Banos, and who headlined Viva in 2017, has since played Coachella and is touring Europe. Contreras showed me a recent photo of a promotion for Cuco’s new album. “He’s on a Times Square billboard,” Contreras said, delighted, “and he played his first festival in Pomona. It’s crazy.”

Viva’s audience is mostly aged 16 to 25, with many performers in the same range. At 28, Contreras said, he’s having to work a little to relate to a demographic he’s aging out of. “I’m used to being the young kid,” he marveled. The days when he organized street teams to hand out concert flyers at high schools must seem prehistoric to today’s teen bands.

Viva takes place Saturday and Sunday, starting at 4 p.m. at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St. Tickets are $25. Of the 49 bands on the bill, about half are Latin. Some switch back and forth effortlessly between Spanish and English. The Marias, for one: The bilingual singer is from Puerto Rico and the rest of the band is from the San Fernando Valley.

Contreras still lives in his parents’ home. He began Viva! Pomona to promote hometown pride and do something for local bands and fans who got the cold shoulder in L.A. The increasingly Latin tinge, he said, simply reflects life today, in which young people move fluidly between those worlds.

“It’s not a Latino festival or a Latinx festival, where everybody speaks Spanish,” Contreras said. “I’m not about banging down the door or closing people out. It’s about bringing people together.”

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, pulling people apart. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook, follow @davidallen909 on Twitter and buy “Getting Started” and “Pomona A to Z.”