May 16, 2013
In high heels and flawless fashions, Sheila E. has been rocking the drums since she was a teenager growing up in Oakland, California. At 55, she’s still not slowing down. She’s collaborated with artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, toured the country and is currently working on a new album and autobiography, From Pain to Purpose, due out next year. In town for a show at the Howard Theater Thursday, May 16, she stopped by the African Art Museum for a performance with the Farafina Kan Youth Ensemble drummers. “I slowed down for a couple hours this morning,” she jokes about her hectic life.
It’s a pace and spirit that have become her signature no matter what genre she’s performing in. But those high energy concerts come with a cost. “It’s very demanding,” says the star who regularly ices her hands and feet after shows. “I just had a procedure done on my arm, my elbow and my wrist so it’s still painful to play,” she says. “It’s just things that happen from playing all of these years for so long but I love what I do.”
Sheila E. was born Sheila Escovedo, daughter of percussionist Peter Escovedo. Surrounded by a whole host of musical uncles and godfather Tito Puente, she picked up the drums at a young age. But, she says, “I didn’t know that music was going to be my career.” Instead, she had plans to be either the first little girl on the moon or an Olympic sprinter. Interrupting her training, she took to the stage to perform with her dad when she was 15. “And that changed my whole life.”
Her family and her hometown of Oakland provided precisely the kind of creative fertile ground she needed to experience all kinds of music. “My dad is totally the foundation of who I am,” says Escovedo. “He’s a Latin jazz musician, but he also brought different kinds of music into the house,” she says, adding that it’s this sort of artistic range that has helped her have such longevity in her career. Oakland also provided its own mix of music for the young artist. “I’ll tell you, it’s the best place to be born. I love D.C. but the Bay Area, oh my gosh.” Calling it a mecca for music with a rich variety of ethnicities, Escovedo cited the many bands that came from the area, including her uncle’s band, Azteca.
Though her father tried to persuade her at first to take up violin, he never let her think she couldn’t play the drums. “I grew up in a home where my parents never said that it was wrong to play because I was a girl,” says Escovedo. She remembers going to her friends’ houses and asking where all the percussion instruments were, thinking it was typical of all homes.
Once she got in the industry and began working with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Lionel Richie, she says she encountered some resistance as a female musician. But her parents told her, “Just do what you do, play from the heart, be on time, be early, learn your craft and when you get in there…be prepared so when you walk in you walk in with confidence.”
Anyone who’s seen her perform or watched her delight audiences during Drum Solo Week on the “Late Show with David Letterman” knows that she’s not wanting for confidence. She’s also not wanting for inspiration. The artist says she’s tried almost every genre of music, including polka, though she’s most well-known for her songs “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” collaborations with Prince. With one country song under her belt, she says she’s now trying to encourage her friend Garth Brooks to record with her.
When she’s not writing books or in the studio, she likes to search YouTube for up and coming female percussionists. “There are more women percussionists, young girls playing now than ever,” says Escovedo, and that includes girls from her own Elevate Hope Foundation, which seeks to bring music and art to children who have been abused or abandoned to help them heal and communicate.
Contemplating what item she would donate to the Smithsonian if given the chance, she says it’s almost impossible to decide, despite a garage full of instruments. “The thing is, everywhere I go, if I pick something up, you know, that tube over there or this water bottle, I can play it as an instrument.” In fact, she says, “On Michael Jackson’s album, the first one that he did, “Off the Wall,” he wanted me to come in and play this sound and to emulate it the only thing that I could think of was to get two water bottles, like two Perrier water bottles. I poured water in them to tune to the actual track, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.’” With two pieces of metal, she hit the glass. “So that’s me playing the bottles.”
After her show in D.C., Escovedo says it’s back to the studio to record a track for her album with Chaka Khan. “I say yeah, I’m going to slow down,” she says, but, “I get on stage and I get crazy. It’s in me. I’ve got to do it.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.