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Latin Music Guide: Sheila E. Essay Skip to content

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Sheila E. on Breaking Down Barriers as a Female Drummer

Music has always been a family affair for the goddaughter of Tito Puente

Sheila E in episode 305 of ‘Little Big Shots.’

Evans Vestal Ward/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Sheila E in episode 305 of ‘Little Big Shots.’

En español | Growing up listening to my dad practice every day in the house, listening to his jam sessions, watching him rehearse with his band in the living room, that all was a big influence on me as far as the foundation of my music. I apply percussion Latin jazz music to whatever I do. In that sense, knowing that all Latin rhythms don’t apply to some of the more commercial music, like pop and R&B, what I did was adjust the sounds or rhythms, changing them so they would still apply and they would be something that people would love. Being very universal with the foundation of Latin music and bringing it into different areas of music has allowed me to expand and play with many different artists.

My family always encouraged me to play. They never said that girls shouldn’t play percussion. It never even occurred to me that there would be so much scrutiny of me as a female drummer. Most of the men who played drums asked me what I was even doing at these shows. There was disrespect at times. Part of my legacy has been breaking down those barriers. I didn’t know that I was doing that at the time. I just wanted to play because I realized that it was a gift. I loved being able to share that gift. It was so powerful for me. But you don’t know how you touch someone’s life until you meet them, and they say, “I grew up watching you” or “My grandmother grew up watching you” or “I wanted to play just like you. I wanted to take drums in school, but they didn’t let me.”

Growing up, we didn’t speak Spanish because my dad was told not to speak Spanish, that it was not good and he might not get hired. That’s changed a lot. We have finally arrived within the last 10 years, so much so that everyone is trying to cross over and do Spanglish and there are mainstream artists attempting to cross over to a Latin market. So, Latin music crossed over into mainstream and vice versa. There are lots of young artists who are embracing Latin music. It’s so prevalent now.

It’s interesting, because the Latin community has responded to me in a great way, but it’s the media that have alienated me. They don’t see me as a Latin artist, which is weird. I think it has to do with the Latin salsa music on the East Coast where the rhythm and direction is always based on the clave, no matter what that was like. On the West Coast, where I grew up and learned how to play, it was more self-taught. 

Through all of this, I’ve learned to be proud of who you are, and represent who you are, and don’t change to be something that you’re not. If you’re Latin and you love rock ’n’ roll, that’s OK. Your influence is still who you are. — As told to Korina Lopez

The 61-year-old was born into a musical family in Oakland, California, as the daughter of Mexican-American percussionist Pete Escovedo. Tito Puente was her godfather. After becoming a professional percussionist at 15, she went on to work with Prince, Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, and others. She scored a Top 10 hit in 1984 with “The Glamorous Life.” Her memoir, The Beat of My Own Drum, came out in 2014.

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