Sheila E. on the Power of Music to Bring People Together
Self-taught percussionist remains an artist marked by a voracious desire to innovate and uplift
Watching Sheila E., 63, perform, you would assume she’d had intensive musical training. But her formative experiences actually came as a young girl, sitting across from her father, legendary percussionist Pete Escovedo, as he rehearsed. For hours she’d watch him play Latin jazz pieces on the timbales, and then later mimic his movements, teaching herself how to play the drums and timbales, resulting in her highly idiosyncratic but technically assured style.
“You could say I play upside down,” Sheila E. says, laughing. “I have no formal musical training except following my dad like a mirror image. So I play with my left hand what he played with his right, and so forth. It’s a little unusual, but it works.”
Born in Oakland, California, Sheila’s multicultural upbringing — the family of her mother, Juanita Gardere, which hails from New Orleans, one of the world’s great music cities, is of French/African descent, and her father is Mexican-American — armed her with a broad tapestry of influences. So while Sheila, the oldest of four musical children, can play salsa like an Afro-Caribbean master, she feels equally comfortable touring with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band or performing funk, Latin jazz and soul with her own group.
“We went together to New York once, because [legendary bandleader] Ray Barretto wanted to see her play,” recalls Escovedo. “Everyone was stunned when she started jamming. I think she’s at her best on the congas, but the truth is, she can play anything she wants.”
In the late ’70s, Sheila made a name for herself as a young percussionist with fusion keyboardist George Duke. She then developed a musical and romantic partnership with Prince, who produced her seminal solo records of the ’80s, including radio hits “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.”
Sheila was one of the opening acts during Prince’s Purple Rain tour in 1984, and her performances were so dynamic that Prince was forced to change his own sets just to keep up with his girlfriend’s reckless energy. “Ain’t no way Sheila’s gonna have a funkier band than me,” Prince warned his musicians, a story she recalls in her 2014 memoir, The Beat of My Own Drum.
Prince was a sympathetic mentor, helping Sheila become a more assured composer and frontwoman by supporting the launch of her solo career. He co-produced her first three albums, two of them on his Paisley Park label, co-writing many songs with her.
She looks regal on her music videos from that era — standing behind her timbales at the front of the stage, singing with panache about beds of flowers and strawberry minds. The aesthetic of those hits has aged particularly well, blending hints of psychedelia with sophisticated R&B and echoes of the swaying, syncopated Latin beats that Sheila grew up with.
Today she’s as busy as ever. Listening to new music and discovering new artists is an important part of Sheila’s artistic process. The members of her band have a WhatsApp group devoted strictly to sharing new tracks. “At the same time, I often type ‘who are the new young artists’ on Google,” she says. “There’s so much great music out there that it can become overwhelming. Every day you could find 20 or 30 great artists that you’ve never heard before.”
Sheila has kept herself busy during the current pandemic by recording a percussion tutorial for the MasterClass series and working on four different albums at the same time.
“Staying home means that we’re able to put out more music,” she says. She recently released a couple of singles and music videos on digital platforms, and she plans to return to live performances next year.
Her latest album, Iconic: Message 4 America, is a sprawling collection of songs featuring guest spots by Ringo Starr, Freddie Stone and George Clinton. The collection’s overarching message is the need for social harmony and universal love. This same concept anchors her AARP playlist.
“Once in a while, you have to take the time and find some balance in your life,” she says. “I recommend doing something that makes you feel good — cooking, drawing, writing, listening to music, just sitting down and putting back what’s missing from your life. Because of the chaos involved in everything that’s happening outside, it’s essential to create your own moment of peace.”
Guest Playlist by Sheila E.
Showcasing the legendary percussionist’s taste for an eclectic rainbow of genres, the 15 songs in her playlist, ”Songs of Unity and Hope,” are linked by themes of kindness, optimism and universal love.
Read about her picks here, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
People, performed by Jonathan McReynolds
“McReynolds is an amazing gospel artist. I love this song so much because he talks about healing from the damage that we suffer in life — including himself. He asks God to help him forgive everyone around him who is lying, hating and being disrespectful. Also to bring comfort to those who had their joy taken away. The lyrics talk about all of us, people in general, and I love that.”
We Gon’ Be Alright, performed by Tye Tribbett
“This is a song about dealing with the times that we’re going through. There’s a lot of confusion, we’re stressed out, and at times we don’t know which way to go. But we don’t want to be fearful — we want to rise up. We know who we should trust, and that is God. He can help us heal through the senseless crimes happening every day: human trafficking, racism, police brutality. In a way, this is a very uplifting song, because it encourages us to get up. Everything is going to be all right.”
Have a Talk with God, performed by Stevie Wonder
“I love everything by Stevie Wonder, and of course he has hundreds of songs that are fun and inspiring. This one deals with our current times, telling us that whenever life gets challenging, it’s good to go have a talk with God. If some people don’t believe in a higher power, that’s OK, too. At this point, I think we’re all searching for something to help us get through.”
Waterfalls, performed by TLC
“I love TLC. It’s interesting to me that all these artists are able to connect with us through the music first, but then you realize that the subject matter they discuss is pretty deep. I remember when “Waterfalls” came out. I think it was one of the first songs to speak openly about the illegal drug trade and the AIDS crisis. Lyrically, it’s just brilliant.”
Anything for You, performed by Ledisi
“This is a love story about making mistakes, about the right and the wrong, the things that we have to go through in relationships. I love the groove, her voice, the way it was recorded. Ledisi gave her heart and soul in this song.”
Twin, performed by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
“Christian is a young horn player from New Orleans. My mom is from there, and I love the music and culture of the city. “Twin” has a Spanish vibe to it, together with that New Orleans flavor. Love how he intertwines those two.”
Hurricane Season, performed by Trombone Shorty
“Shorty is an incredible songwriter, and he plays a bunch of different instruments. I love the street vibe that he brings to this tune. You literally feel that you’re dancing in the streets of New Orleans. It’s a celebration.”
Let’s Stay Together, performed by Pete Escovedo
“I had to put my daddy on one of these [laughs.] This is from his latest album, produced by my brother, Peter Michael. A new version of the famous Al Green song. I like the message: let’s stay together, happy or sad, in these difficult times.”
Billie Jean, performed by Tony Succar and Unity
“Tony Succar is an amazing producer, arranger and timbalero. I met him years ago and participated in his tribute to Michael Jackson, which was also a PBS special. I picked this song because it’s a salsa arrangement of “Billie Jean.” You can’t sit down listening to this — you have to get up and dance, and I love that.”
Blackbird, performed by Sheila E.
“I picked this one from my latest album, Iconic. A stripped-down version of the Paul McCartney classic, with acoustic piano, cello and a bit of horns. A song about the civil rights movement and the troubles in the South during the ’60s. I thought it was relevant to the times we’re living in.”
Yes We Can Can, performed by Sheila E.
“Another track from my Iconic album, this one features activist Dr. Angela Davis. Again, relevant to the current situation in the world at large. It felt poignant to perform this classic Pointer Sisters tune about the need for all of us to get together and iron out our problems. We need to respect each other.”
Mas Que Nada, performed by Sergio Mendes
“I love Brazilian music and could have picked anything by Sergio Mendes. This beautiful samba makes you want to dance right away. Sergio plays the piano in a very percussive way, and the way the melody is sung on top of that is just amazing.”
Behind the Gardens, Behind the Wall, Under the Tree ... performed by Andreas Vollenweider
“This one takes me back to my years hanging out with Prince in the ’80s. We listened to Vollenweider all the time. At night, Prince liked playing music that had no lyrics. He loved focusing on the melodies.”
Dexterity, performed by Charlie Parker
“I love everything about Charlie Parker. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz lately, and it reminds me of the time when I was growing up, playing clubs with my father and other artists. Learning about music, jamming and being spontaneous onstage.”
When I Fall in Love, performed by Nat King Cole
“It felt very appropriate to end this playlist with the softest, smoothest voice ever. And also the message of this timeless Nat King Cole song: the thought of falling in love, of wanting to love one another.”
How to add playlist directly to your smartphone
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your smartphone. To use, open Spotify, click on the Search field in the middle bottom of the screen. Click in the Search field and when you see the camera icon on the top right, click on that. Aim your camera at the code and it will bring up the playlist. To save the playlist, click on the heart.
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