Interview: Sammy Figueroa

In a phone call from Miami, Sammy Figueroa expressed tremendous joy as he discussed his life as a musician. A percussionist extraordinaire, Figueroa is busy performing around the world, recording and collaborating with other artists on compilations, movie scores and jingles. Currently, he’s on tour with Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser, sharing music from Talisman, their new album (Savant Records). The pair will perform in Chicago at City Winery on Oct. 16.


Figueroa, a New Yorker, is the son of Puerto Rican bolero singer Charlie Figueroa. When the younger Figueroa was studying at the University of Puerto Rico, he began his musical career performing alongside Bobby Valentín. Later, he formed the Brazilian Latin group Raíces. The group soon landed a record deal, which prompted Figueroa to return to New York.

Figueroa became a sought after studio and session player, working with everyone you can think of: Miles Davis, Ruben Blades, David Bowie, Quincy Jones, Mariah Carey. The man’s a genius with percussion in all its genres. Figueroa’s recordings have earned him Grammy nominations in the Latin jazz category, featured spots on numerous compilations and a gig hosting his own radio program, The Sammy Figueroa Show on WDNA. Figueroa recently finished an eight-week run on cruise line  Norwegian Getaway’s Grammy Experience at Sea.

Thankfully, Figueroa had a few minutes to talk with Gozamos before embarking on the Talisman tour.

You’ve performed with so many artists on so many platforms. You’re considered a musician’s musician. How has this affected your joy of playing?

I have to tell you, I’m die hard. (He laughs.) I’m gonna do this until the day I die. I’m always learning. I’m still discovering new things about myself and other people. I love to learn and will always be open to anything new. So really, my joy of playing has grown and will continue to grow.

You just released Talisman, your album with Glaucia Nasser, and it’s a wonderful selection of Brazilian sounds. Now that the album is out, what are your thoughts about presenting this collaboration?

Well, I’m not sure what to expect. It’s gonna be a surprise, just like when we recorded the actual album. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I didn’t know that it was gonna turn out to be this good. I’m just hoping for the best and whatever happens, happens. We’re excited, that’s for sure, and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens.

You are so enthusiastic about what you do. It’s inspiring. How do you maintain your creativity?

(Laughing.) I’m a crazy artist! I listen to music 24/7. When I get home, I put on my headphones and listen to more music. I love listening to new singers and exploring what’s new out there. It keeps me alive. There’s so much to hear! There’s a saying out there that goes something like, “So much to do and so little time,” and that’s how I feel about music. There’s just so much of it. That keeps me fueled.

Has there ever been a request to work with a certain genre that ultimately didn’t work?

I’ve done just about everything so I’d have to say no. It’s all been a pleasure to work with.

Who is following in your footsteps?

There are many young musicians that have listened to me for years. You do all this work but you don’t really know who’s listening to you, you know? So I’m happy when I get approached and told by a young person that they admire my work and are following in my footsteps. I’m happy to help them because they, in turn, help me. I’m very inspired by them. I love meeting young people because they are my teachers. They keep me fresh, inspired. To hear them play is extraordinary.

Besides your music, who should we be listening to?

I’m really into singers. I really like Lalah Hathaway. I think Alicia Olatujah is really great and is going to make it big. You need to check her out. And well, there’s just so much out there. It inspires me to create something new. I really encourage people to listen to as much music as they can.

You’ll be here with Nasser on Oct. 16 at City Winery. What can we expect at your show?

I hope that what people get out of it is something mystical and beautiful.

Now, this is a winery. Are you a wine drinker? What wine goes with your music… ¿un poquito de todo?

(Laughs.) Well yeah, but when it comes to wine I love a good Cabernet. A Napa Valley Cabernet will go just right.

What are your plans after this tour?

Well, we’re going to do a couple of big concerts and hoping to do more in Brazil and then hopefully back to tour the US.

Sammy Figueroa and Glaucia Nasser will perform their Latin-Brazilian jazz on Oct. 16 at City Winery located at 1200 W. Randolph Street. They will be joined by special guests Bianca Gismonti and Chico Pinheiro. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. and the show begins at 8:00 p.m.

Tickets available here.