Banjos and bongos might seem like strange bedfellows, but not in the hands of the thrillingly inventive Sammy Arriaga, who makes the pairing of Latin flavor and southern soul seem effortlessly natural.
Born in Miami with Cuban roots but thriving in Nashville, Tennessee, Arriaga was raised on the eclectic beats that fill the Florida streets, but came to love the classic storytelling embedded in country music – and though it hadn’t been done in quite this way before, melding the two made perfect sense for the 27-year-old singer songwriter.
“One day, someone came up to me and said, ‘what is your sound?'” says Arriaga. “And I said, ‘just pair up a banjo & a bongo and there ya have it.’ And it was like a light went on – I thought, ‘man, that could be a great song title.'”
And it is ever: “Banjos N’ Bongos” became the title song off of his first collection, the Banjos N’ Bongos (Acoustic Mixtape)– and also a phrase that describes everything that makes up the lifeblood of his refreshing, rhythmically unique sound. Sure enough, “Banjos N’ Bongos” leads in with Arriaga’s subtle country inflexion creatively mixed with a world beat courtesy of straight-from-South America percussion that flows effortlessly with the acoustic, twangy chug. “You be Shania, I’ll be Enrique,” he sings, evoking two artists, Shania Twain and Enrique Iglesias, who drive both sides of his eclectic personality. The result is as harmonious as it is completely infectious on both this track and the lead single, “Cold In Miami,” that shows not only his inventive composition but his flawless, dynamic vocal range.
Arriaga got his start singing for fun in his hometown of Miami, but didn’t quite consider making it a career until a fateful day in the high school cafeteria – probably the unlikeliest place to find peer support, but Arriaga has a knack for discovering light and joy in unexpected places.
“Sophomore or junior year, I sat at a random lunch table with a bunch of seniors,” he recalls. “Ends up one of the guys was the popular producer in school, and he heard me singing with my headphones on. He was like, ‘hey, you sing pretty well. Want to come into the hallway and sing?'” Turns out, he was looking for a budding talent, and Arriaga would spend time in his new friend’s home studio, experimenting with recording and developing a serious love for music. Country music – like Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and his fellow beach-lover & FL native Jake Owen – in particular.
Soon after, Arriaga’s father encouraged him to try out for Season Ten of American Idol, a stint that lead him to meet his roommate who eventually urged him to drop everything and move to Nashville, Tennessee. It was there he met people like Monty Powell (Keith Urban, Diamond Rio), and quickly began to hone his songwriting skills; a talent that came so naturally it even surprised him. But he also realized that as much as he loved country music, his Latin roots were as strong as ever – and he wanted to find a way to bring them together.
“The magic of the past ten years has been me trying to figure out the middle lines between the genres,” says Arriaga. “Growing up in Miami there wasn’t much country music, mostly salsa, meringue, hip hop, EDM. Once I came to Nashville, I realized there wasn’t a solo man in country music representing the Hispanic culture in recent years”
Now, he’s on a mission to change that, pointing to artists like Zac Brown Band, who has previously incorporated Latin vibes into his music, or Chesney, who’s been known for turning country tropical. And, of course, artists like the Mavericks who helped to craft the twangy Tejano sound. “One of my long term goals is to be the one representing Country Music at the Latin Grammy’s,” says Arriaga. “And the Latin guy at the CMAs.” So far, he’s put his many talents on display while on tour nationwide, having shared the stage with Brett Young, Chase Rice, Cassadee Pope, Trace Adkins & more..
“Cold In Miami” is proof that Arriaga is on to something good – it’s a part southern ballad, part Latin spice. Written with Aaron Scherz and James Slater, it’s about the irony of being in a “hot” city like Miami but unable to find true, meaningful connections. “Finding love in Miami is kind of like walking on ice,” says Arriaga. “Growing up I had a lot of friends who were cheated on. Some women or guys would be in love because of someone’s status, power, and money. Ocean drive, Miami Beach. It’s like I sing on the track: ‘Swimming in a sea of diamonds”
When it came time to figure out how to release his first collection of songs, putting together an acoustic mix tape seemed to be the natural solution – the concept is true to both his roots and his country-loving, guitar-centric side. Arriaga met producer Lalo Guzman at a Sam Hunt street party, and immediately bonded over their cultural connections. Soon, the idea for the Banjos N’ Bongos (Acoustic Mixtape) was born, with six songs that get to the heart of Arriaga’s diverse spirit that melds the heat of Miami with spirit of the American south.
Anyway, as Arriaga puts it, “Miami is about as south as you can get.”