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'I'm Still a Work in Progress'

And The Beat Goes On

Percussionist Sheila E shares her success by helping abused and abandoned kids.

Sheila: En armonía

— Photo by Dana Tynan

En español | Sheila E. sits at a North Hollywood restaurant eating huevos rancheros with her father, Mexican American percussionist Pete Escovedo. This morning the musician accompanied her dad to a doctor's appointment, and now they're squeezing in a quick bite at Don Huarache before heading next door for a session at Sheila's studio.

Between mouthfuls, "Pops"—as she calls her father—reminisces about his daughter's precocious musical gifts. "I knew she was going to be something at an early age," Escovedo says. "She'd crawl up to drums and beat on them, and anything that was musical on TV she'd get all excited and dance to the rhythm." By the time she was nine, he was encouraging her to learn the violin so she wouldn't become a struggling percussionist like him.

But even Pops could never have predicted the illustrious career that awaited his daughter. After turning professional in her teens, she rose to pop stardom with her release of The Glamorous Life in 1984, and then toured with Prince. While recording more albums and playing with the likes of Ringo Starr and Stevie Wonder, she staked out parallel careers as a producer and a composer for movies.

Her music runs the gamut, from the Latin beats she grew up with—her dad's jam sessions included the legendary Tito Puente (Sheila's godfather) and jazz great Eddie Palmieri, among others—to the country she played on CMT's Gone Country 3, which she won in March. At 51, Sheila still tours with her band, C.O.E.D. (Chronicles of Every Diva), three women whose musical style blends funk, jazz, and gospel.

Family and music have always gone together for the Escovedos, taking form most recently in Love's All Around, an album to be released later this year featuring four generations of the E. family: Pete, Sheila and her two brothers, their kids, and then their kids. An aunt 11 times over, a great aunt ten times over, and a godmother times nine, Sheila glories in watching musical notes fall like leaves from the family tree.

Sheila E.'s life today may embody warmth, security, and success, but this wasn't always the case. Even as her career revved forward, an unvoiced wound haunted her, tainting the payoff of her hard work and gifted musicality. "I carried a lot of anger with me," she recalls. "I was angry because of things I carried with me about being raped at five."

There it is—speaking the unspeakable. Sitting in a leather chair in her studio now, she is open, defiant, and relaxed as she talks about being raped by a babysitter. After the trauma, "I just didn't know how to deal with people," she says, "but I got tired of being that person." Staring the experience down and refusing to let it define her allowed her to break free.

Elevating Hope

Lynn Mabry, Sheila's best friend and business manager, witnessed the transformation. Mabry, a distinguished vocalist who sang in Sheila's band, came to know her while she was still tormented by the past and at odds with the present. A victim of sexual abuse herself, Mabry was well acquainted with the challenges of reliving traumas, so while on tour in Japan in 1995 she encouraged Sheila to sit at a computer and write. "I'm hearing typing, typing, typing," Mabry says, conjuring up that watershed night. "The next minute I don't hear typing and I hear sniffling. She had fallen to her knees in tears."

Thus began Sheila E.'s "rebirth," as Mabry calls it. With the support of family and friends, the creative outlet of music, and a fortified faith in God, Sheila freed herself from the past. "I'm still a work in progress," the singer says. But it's clear she's faced down her demons and is the better for it, intent on making a positive impact in the world.

Armed with this new attitude, Sheila teamed up with Mabry in 2001 to launch the Elevate Hope Foundation, which assists abused and abandoned children through music and the arts. Through the foundation, they renovated the music center at Vista Del Mar Child & Family Services, serving troubled and neglected kids. Then came Garage Band 101, a music production class using computers, and Songwriter's Symposium, where students journal, exorcising emotions in much the same way Sheila did in Japan. Songwriters then take inspiration from the journals to write songs, which in turn are recorded. The project will culminate in a CD to benefit Vista.

"We have kids who would not come to school if not for those classes," says Vista's Airick Arqese. "Sheila understands [them]. It's giving [them] a second opportunity."

As it's giving Sheila a second opportunity to compose a better future for herself and others. "It's everyone's obligation to do something. Whatever your job, it's our duty to try to help somebody else," she says. Getting ready for her afternoon studio session, she smiles and proclaims, "It's been a wonderful journey thus far, and now, at 51, I'm starting a new life."

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