Find a Hotel
Hero Alt Text

Sounds of Tucson

Get An Earful of Tucson's Music Culture

CAN YOU HEAR the sound of Tucson in the music played here? The Sonoran Desert, the borderlands, the cross-cultural influences, the sun-baked vibe can all exist—in one way or another— in the fusion of styles and sounds prevalent in the local scene.

No one sound or style defines Tucson music—not in the past and certainly not today—but, like the chefs who make up the city’s renowned culinary scene, musicians deftly borrow from different traditions and add their own personal touches. So whether it’s the spaghetti-western desert noir of Calexico, the indie mambo of Orkesta Mendoza, or XIXA’s cumbia-tinged psychedelic rock, there’s plenty of inspiration in Tucson for captivating music.

Experiencing the city without taking something away from its top-notch music scene would be like blowing through town without stopping to eat.

Any night of the week, clubs and venues clustered in the city’s historic core along Fourth Avenue and throughout downtown offer jazz, folk, rock, and blues in myriad combinations. Community radio station KXCI-91.3 FM has played local music on the airwaves for more than 35 years. With its long-standing “Locals Only” program and a new studio in the Hotel Congress, KXCI is committed to its slogan: Real people, real radio.

 

 

Congress Street’s downtown entertainment strip is anchored by two historic theaters: to the east, the Rialto Theatre, which hosts top touring rock, hip-hop, dance, and country bands; and to the west, the Fox Tucson Theatre, a fully seated venue known as the “Crown Jewel” of downtown, beautifully restored to its vaudeville-era glory. Also in the heart of downtown is Club Congress, the longest-running venue of its kind west of the Mississippi, with music seven nights a week: local and national, indoors and out.

But Tucson wouldn’t be Tucson without new hotspots, favorite off-the-beaten-path venues, and creative settings for live music. There’s a wealth of talented acts playing in converted warehouses, including 191 Toole and Think-Tank, neighborhood bars, including Che’s Lounge and the Flycatcher, and cozy spots, including Monterey Court and La Cocina, that combine shops, galleries, and restaurants.

It's no secret that Tucson's music scene loves a big get-together.

In a town known for its fiestas, it’s no surprise that Tucson’s musical scene loves a big get-together. Annual music festivals span the calendar. The Tucson Jazz Festival arrives in January, with nearly two weeks of performances from national headliners and locals alike, spanning the full spectrum from traditional to avant-garde to Latin jazz. Tony Redhouse, Tucson’s accomplished Native American world-beat percussionist, is a regular at the jazz fest. In February, the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival is an all-day event with panels, performances, and workshops. In May, the long-running Tucson Folk Festival fills historic Presidio Plaza for a weekend of free roots-music performances by more than 120 acts.

National headliners, including Daughtry, Colbie Callet, and Train—as well as regional and local artists—are center stage at the two-day Oro Valley Music Festival, which happens in September/early October. October is jam-packed with music festivals, including both the Southern Arizona Blues & Heritage Festival and the new Dusk Festival, which draws uber-hip EDM, hip-hop, and rock performers for fans of Coachella and Lollapalooza. And the big daddy of them all—the Tucson International Mariachi Conference—celebrated its 35th year in April 2017. This gathering of mariachi bands and folklorico dancers includes masterful performances, an outdoor festival, and a traditional mariachi Mass.

National headliners, including Daughtry, Colbie Callet, and Train—as well as regional and local artists—are center stage at the two-day Oro Valley Music Festival, which happens in September/early October. October is jam-packed with music festivals, including both the Southern Arizona Blues & Heritage Festival and the new Dusk Festival, which draws uber-hip EDM, hip-hop, and rock performers for fans of Coachella and Lollapalooza. And the big daddy of them all—the Tucson International Mariachi Conference—celebrated its 35th year in April 2017. This gathering of mariachi bands and folklorico dancers includes masterful performances, an outdoor festival, and a traditional mariachi Mass.

Tucson’s Native American roots can be heard at venues across town. R. Carlos Nakai, the world’s top performer of the Native American flute, spans genres from new age, world-beat jazz, and classical. Renowned guitarist Gabriel Ayala infuses classical, jazz, flamenco, and his own compositions with his influences as a member of the Yaqui people of Southern Arizona.

Perhaps it’s the mystique of the Sonoran Desert, but Tucson musicians have found surprisingly large audiences in Europe since the early 1980s, a trend kicked off by the ever-shifting alt-country ensemble Giant Sand. Today, a new generation of Tucson bands is bringing the Southwest to stages and summer festivals all across Europe.

Orkesta Mendoza’s 2016 European tour saw this multinational, multiethnic Tucson band playing from the U.K. clear to Istanbul. Led by multi-instrumentalist Sergio Mendoza, the group’s distinctly captivating sound is built on Latin rhythms blended with rock and electronic influences.

XIXA has embarked on tour after tour of Europe during the last two years, introducing a sound that draws on a genre-bending combination of grassroots influences that span decades, countries, and languages and yet sounds exactly like 21st-century Tucson.


 

Video: Xixa Bloodline


Musicians can search the shelves and storerooms of institutions such as the Chicago Store and The Folk Shop for instruments and gear like that next guitar just waiting to be found. Local studios with state-of-the-art equipment and talent—WaveLab, Dust & Stone, and Midtown Island—actively record local and touring bands, each carving out a niche, blending vintage and top-of-the-line gear. For putting the music out into the world, Tucson’s small independent record shops—check out Wooden Tooth Records and Old Paint Records—are a bin-hunter’s dream.

If Austin is the new Live Music Capital of the World, Tucson is the up-and-coming sibling, the next big thing. So catch on now. Go see a band tonight.

Order a free copy of the Tucson Official Travel Guide.

Authentic Tucson Shopping

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman One-of-a-kind? Check. Artisanal curio? Absolutely. Whether you’re looking for quirky specialty or handspun local, you’ll score lovely finds in Tucson. It... Read More

Tucson Is a Place for Music

When you think of American cities known for music, sure, names like Nashville, Memphis, Seattle and Austin will come to mind, and for good reason... Read More

Top