Sheila E. had no plans to become a professional musician. She grew up playing drums and watching her father, Pete Escovedo, a Latin jazz musician, play in a band called Azteca. She just had other goals.
Initially, she wanted to be “the first little girl on the moon,” but later decided she’d settle for being an Olympic gold medal-winning runner instead. She trained for the Olympics, running track as a teenager. One day when she was 15, she performed with her dad. That performance changed her life. Forty years, many tours and six albums later, she can’t imagine not performing.
On Thursday night Sheila E. was one of the performers helping celebrate the life Chuck Brown at tribute concert at the Howard Theatre. She met Brown years ago, and although she never performed with him, says she was a huge fan.
Earlier on Thursday she visited the Smithsonian Museum of African Art to meet young people from Studio Africa, the museum’s educational program that teaches local children about African culture, art and history.
“The youth are very important to me, they’re the next generation, but I want to instill in kids, even in playing, that it’s never too late and there’s no right or wrong way to do anything,” she says.
Her foundation, the Elevate Hope Foundation, uses music and art to help abused children express themselves and heal. Having been abused by a babysitter when she was five, Sheila E. understands the catharsis that comes from artistic expression.
“We use music and arts as therapy to help them and help promote confidence, and to give them something to express themselves. The break down for kids is communication. Music helps bring that bond,” she says.
When performing, she enjoys bringing audience members on stage. “Engaging with the audience lets them know I’m approachable. I don’t like that whole, ‘You can’t talk to Sheila E thing’ – I don’t like that. To me, the stage is like my living room, or my home, and when you come over to my house, I have to be a hostess and invite you in so that we can have a great time,” she says.
In between tour dates, she’s also working on a new album. It’s semi-autobiographical, and many of the songs are tied to her upcoming autobiography that will be published by Simon & Schuster. She is experimenting with different sounds and tempos – even slowing down for a few tracks.
“There’s one song that sounds like Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. That’s just kind of how it came out. There’s a very hot Latin song, and of course the funk music that I play, as well as some percussion,” she says.
She didn’t give being a woman percussionist a second thought growing up, but once she started performing professionally, she soon learned that being a woman drummer in the ‘80s was a rarity.
“When I started performing with other artists and would walk into the room to play with other percussionists, they didn’t know of me – they kind of talked bad to me and tried to disrespect me, but what I did was went back and talked to my parents,” she says.
They told her to be herself, play well, learn her craft and be prepared – “so when you walk in, you walk in with confidence,” she says. “If this is my best, this is all that I can give you. I don’t have to prove anything to you. This is my gift. It’s not a competition.”
She sees more women percussionists performing now than ever. Sometimes, when she has some spare time, she will go on a YouTube binge, looking for inspiration.
“I type in girl conga player’ or ‘female percussionist’ and I try to search for young girls who are playing because I’m encouraged by that,” she says.
Sometimes she reaches out to them, asking where they learned to play and what inspired them to focus on percussion.
“Even now, some women come up to me and say, ‘I always wanted to play, but it wasn’t the female thing to do.’ This was a man’s instrument. But gender isn’t attached to music. And music itself – percussion, or whatever it may be, is an open door to communication,” she says.