Unite the beat
Latin percussionist Sheila E. delivers a political dance record inspired by the ’60s, relevant today
You should get out and vote— everyone’s voice must be heard. That’s the plea from the Queen of Percussion, Sheila E. On her latest record, Iconic: Message 4 America, E.'s passions are in part ignited by the darker times in this country’s past, like the political heatwaves of the 1960s, an era she remembers through music. Her father, Latin rhythm legend Pete Escovedo, and his contemporaries wrote songs decrying the Vietnam War and preaching peace. Now, it’s E.'s turn to rekindle that fire and inspire fans to effect change, starting with November.
E.'s built a career introducing the world to Latin-style beats, creating funky rhythms behind a rig of timbales, bells and blocks. Since her debut album The Glamorous Life in the ‘80s, she’s provided the back beat for Ringo Starr, George Duke, and her even father, where she started performing in the Bay Area alongside him and her uncles at 5 years old.
Famously, her life intertwined intimately and artistically with Prince. The two would later write and record music together and form a decades-long bond, from the Purple Rain recording sessions to touring as drummer and musical director for the late musician’s band.
She’s now performing at an event we can all unite behind—regardless of our politics: the Capitol Mall’s Downtown Chowdown. Forty food trucks span three blocks, all to the tune of E.'s worldly movement patterns. SN&R chatted with E. about her upcoming performance, Iconic, her life with Prince and what keeps the butterflies fluttering before she hits the stage.
What was the inspiration behind Iconic: Message 4 America?
I was writing a dance record that was going to be released, and the election and the things that were happening and the disrespect were so amazingly rude and awful for our country. I just couldn’t believe it, and I just thought, “I can’t put a dance record out. This is not cool. I need to say something.”
The songs on the album are your versions of hits by artists like The Beatles and James Brown. How did you choose which songs to feature on the album?
I chose to go back and listen to songs that I grew up listening to in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. … These songs back then, including my dad with Azteca, the band that he had, everyone was talking about peace, love or the [Vietnam War]. It was very political at that time, and so it was easy to choose songs that lyrically are still relevant to what is happening right now in our country.
Are you looking forward to November's election?
Yes. Every day, we’ve been out posting things, making sure that people go out and vote. Our voice needs to be heard. Everyone’s voice counts. I hear people say all the time, “Well, it’s just me. I’m not really sure. I’m not going to vote,” or, “I don’t want this person to win so I’m not going to vote at all.” Well, you’re actually giving the vote to the person that you don’t want to win. I really want to make sure that people understand that we can be on the outside yelling at this building saying, “Hey, we want change!” But in order for change [to occur], people have to get involved in order for us to make change.
Your father, Pete Escovedo, is also a famous Latin percussionist. I know he introduced you to percussion. What was it was like growing up in an active, musical family?
He drew me to percussion: congas, timbales, bongos and percussion instruments from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, from Africa, from Brazil. He would have all those instruments in the house, every single day. It’s not like we watched a lot of television. Back in the day, it was all about playing vinyl. So my dad would practice to vinyl every single day. All day. And then he would have jam sessions or he would teach people at the house. Sometimes, in the middle of the week, his band would rehearse in the middle of the living room. So there was music every single day, no matter what.
When did you pick up a pair of sticks yourself?
Listening to all this music, I loved watching my dad play, and I would kind of mimic him after he would get up and rehearse and I would go outside and play. So I kind of soaked it up like a sponge, just sitting there watching him. I didn’t know I was going to be a musician, and he introduced me to it because this was his life. I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to be more like my mom because she was such a tomboy and loved all kinds of sports and she liked to do everything. So, yes, he introduced me to it. But I didn’t think I was going to be a musician until I was 14 or 15 years old.
You and Prince were very close friends. Tell me about the song you wrote about your relationship, “Girl Meets Boy.” Do you ever perform it live?
I haven’t been performing it lately. I do another homage to him, which I won’t tell. You have to come to the show to hear it. That song was inspired after he had passed away, and sometimes it’s really hard to play that song, even as of now. So I choose to do it in and out of shows. It just depends on how I feel.
A lot that I do involves him because we recorded and performed and wrote together and spent 30-something years together. It’s most of my life—or half of my life. A lot that I do in the show are songs that we’ve done together or we wrote or recorded, or I do an homage to him. So it’s always about him because we were such a great team and we were friends. He’s always with me no matter what.
What are some of your first memories tied to music?
[My parents] said that when I was 3 years old, the first thing I responded to musically that they noticed was a Jiffy commercial came on television, and I was so excited that I just ran to the television. Whatever the melody for the Jiffy commercial was, I just went crazy. Then at 5 years old, I remember it like it was yesterday, my mom getting me dressed to perform with my dad at a club called Sam’s Ballroom in Oakland. It was with my dad’s band, The Escovedo Brothers, him and his two brothers, and that was the first time that I played percussion on stage live with my father.
Your first album, The Glamorous Life, had a lot of fun, dance-y songs that introduced a lot of listeners to the sounds of Latin percussion. After all these years, how do you keep those songs fun and relevant for you?
Every day, I’m still nervous every time I hit the stage. I have butterflies, and I’m excited, and I never not want to go on stage to perform, whether it’s for five or 10 people, or for 5,000 or 5 million people. I just love doing what I get to do, and it’s because of the passion. I know what my purpose is, and I enjoy it. It’s never left me. I know that if those butterflies and that feeling of excitement ever [go] away that I should quit. But to this day, I’ve never not felt that, and that’s the true blessing. I know what I’m supposed to be doing with this gift, and I’m humbled and thankful and grateful that I’m able to do this.