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Sheila E. Pays Homage to Her Latin Music Influences

Legendary percussionist releases new salsa album, ‘Bailar’

spinner image Sheila E against pinkish orange background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: StilettoFlats Inc)

Drummer and singer Sheila E., 66, honors many of her longtime musical influences — including Tito Puente, the Fania All Stars and Celia Cruz — on her new salsa album, Bailar, out April 5. “It was challenging to pick just a few [songs and artists to cover] because there are so many that impacted my life,” she says. She shares with AARP some of her career challenges, what she misses about Prince, and how she’s keeping up her stamina in her 60s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your new salsa album speaks to your varied musical influences. Has it been challenging to define your musical genre as an artist?

spinner image words sheila e bailar above drum set and next to sheila e
Sheila E.'s new album pays homage to the salsa legends who have inspired her.
Photograph by Rob Shanahan; Cover Design by Steve Parke

It was challenging and it’s still challenging to explain to people. One time the record company said to me: “You know, if we can’t categorize you, we can’t put you anywhere. And because you do so many things, we have to pick one.” And I said, “But I’m not just one. That’s the problem.” And they never understood that. There’s different genres of music that I love. I love to do different things. In my show, even if I'm playing R&B, [I’ll add] a gospel song because I want to, because it’s part of me. Or I’ll add a Latin jazz song in the middle of an R&B [set] because that’s who I am. And it was just challenging [when] the record company said we have to catalog you and put you in this box. I don’t belong in a box.

You were a trailblazer in your field as a female percussionist. Was that a difficult field to pursue?

Oh, absolutely. And it still is. Some things have changed, some things haven’t. Growing up, I always begged people [to let me play drums with them]. Because of my dad [jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo], people think I just walked on stage and played, [but] they would say no to me constantly. I just kept going and asking until someone said yes, because I was very confident in what I was doing and I loved it so much. There were times I would go to [recording studio] sessions here in Los Angeles [and] I would walk into the room and the drummer would turn around and say, “Oh, excuse me. Can you give me a glass of water, please?” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t work here. I was just coming to check my drums.” It was that [situation] all the time [with other male musicians] assuming that I was a receptionist or an assistant.

Youre featured on the recent Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop, about the making of the 1985 song “We Are the World.” Who were you most excited to meet at that recording session?

I loved Cyndi Lauper, and she sat next to me, and she just started talking and I’m freaking out [thinking], She’s talking to me. Oh my God, and she looks so pretty.… It was amazing to be in the room with all of those people. Oh, Bruce Springsteen — I don’t think I had met him yet. That was a big deal as well.

Is there anyone you would still like to collaborate with?

Bruno Mars and I had spoken five [or] six years ago when he first started playing. He keeps saying, “We’re going to do something.” I said, “OK, the ball’s in your court right now.” So I’m waiting for him. Recently, when I went to one of the Raiders’ games, I was sitting in a private box with Ice Cube, and I had met him before but it was a long time ago. I said, “We’re supposed to be doing something together.” I just told him [that] because I’ve always felt that with him. I don’t know why. We’re supposed to do something — a movie or something. That’s what I feel.

What new artists are you listening to?

Sy Smith and Yebba. Smith is a young artist, kind of underground. She’s amazing; she sings like Minnie Riperton. Yebba’s sound is very powerful, but then delicate when she wants to be in control. She can vocally do runs if she wants to, but she doesn’t always have to. Her voice is just incredible. It’s just amazing to be able to be encouraged and inspired by young people.

You were very close with Prince [April 21 is the eighth anniversary of the singer’s death]. What do you miss most about him?

I mean, just him. Everything was about music and creating and jamming.… It’s that music, that camaraderie, being able to just go play and hang out. We used to go to each other’s homes all the time and just jam.

Playing the drums is physically demanding. How are you handling it in your 60s?

It’s been very challenging. I’m not going to lie. I tore my meniscus in my right knee and had PRP [platelet-rich plasma injections] done in my right knee in July. And I tore it again in the same knee but further back. So the procedure happened in December and I’m still going to physical therapy for my meniscus now. There’s more work that you have to do now to keep yourself in that [physically fit] place than you ever thought or could even imagine.

What other “work” are you doing to stay healthy?

Oh, sleep is one. That’s a big one.… I take so many supplements, vitamins.… It’s an everyday focus on self-care, self-awareness, making sure [you get] enough water. And the “intake” — that time of just quiet, just peacefulness, [of thinking] let’s just shut it down for a minute and take it in … so then you can move on through the day. It’s a lot. But I’m doing everything right.

What do you do to disconnect and relax?

I like being outside, period. I love being in the pool swimming. I love grilling, just enjoying nature, sports. I love going to pro [sports] games. I love fishing. I like to fly somewhere where I can get to the beach and be on the sand and just sit there and do nothing — I don’t want to think about anything. I just love that.

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