20 Questions with Sheila E. on Her First Salsa Album, Her Legendary Role Models & What She Misses Most About Prince

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It’s hard to believe that Sheila E. had not released a salsa album until only a couple weeks ago. As the daughter of American percussionist Pete Escovedo, the “Queen of Percussion” grew up surrounded by Latin music royalty — including the “King of the Timbales” Tito Puente, who was her godfather, and the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz — before becoming a star in her own right.

“Everyone thinks I’ve done a salsa record already, but I have not,” she says on a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles about Bailar (released April 5 under Stiletto Flats Music), for which she recruited Latin legends such as Gloria Estefan, Rubén Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa. Her famous dad plays on one song, also featuring José Alberto “El Canario”, and its stunning big band orchestration and arrangements are a testament to her love for the genre.

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“I mean, I grew up listening to that music and it’s just so inspiring,” explains the Oakland-born singer and percussionist of Mexican and French Creole ancestry, who has performed, recorded, and toured with renowned artists from a multitude of musical styles — from her close friend and collaborator Prince, to Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and more. “And then when I really got into listening to Fania All Stars and all the other groups that were part of that,” she continues, “I was just in love.”

Sheila E. started playing drums at the age of 5 — although she admits she doesn’t fully remember that — and made her professional debut at 15, playing the congas for her father’s Latin-rock-funk band Azteca. Active in the industry ever since, this year she also appeared in the Netflix documentary The Greatest Night In Pop, about the historic night in January of 1985 when many of the biggest stars in music gathered to record “We Are the World.” “That was one of the biggest nights in my career,” she recalls.

During the interview, the artist spoke endearingly about her role models, the new generation of female percussionists, the simple joys in life, and what she misses most about Prince.

1. Congratulations on Bailar, your first salsa album. What took you so long!?

I don’t know! [Laughs.] Everyone thinks I’ve done a salsa record already, but I have not. But you know, it was on my bucket list a while ago. When I started thinking about doing it, it was 2015 and it took me this long to really get it together … I’m really excited. I grew up listening to salsa music, it’s so important to me, and I thought, “Man, this is the time to do it! Why haven’t I done this yet?”

2. Many of the songs have a very classical salsa sound. Where did you find the inspiration?

Listening to my dad rehearsing when I was younger at the house every day, he would practice to vinyl and he would play Latin jazz music, but he also listened to Tito [Puente], to Mongo [Santamaría], Celia [Cruz], Eddie Palmieri, Tito Rodríguez, Fania All Stars. You know, so many people. Ray Barreto. I mean, I grew up listening to that music and it’s just so inspiring. And then when I really got into listening to Fania All Stars and all the other groups that were part of that, the whole scene back then, I was just in love.

3. You dad actually plays in your album on the song “Descarga,” also featuring José Alberto “El Canario.” How was this experience for you?

It was so much fun! When I told him, “Daddy” — oh, I call him Papi some times — “Papi, I want you to play in one of the songs on the record and we’re gonna write it especially for you,” he’s like, “You better ask me to play on this record!”

So he came to my studio, and we recorded him here, and then something happened to the track, which is crazy, so my brother had to record him while I was out of town. They recorded him in the Bay Area, at another friend’s studio, so we finally got it. But it was just awesome to have him playing on the record […] He was really excited. And my mom also played guiro on the same song.

4. What’s your first salsa memory? Do you remember any particular song or artist that captivated you?

My dad was 18 when he met Tito, and Tito would come San Francisco, to the Bay Area, to play, and they would go see him play. Later on, after I was born, [when I was] a little bit older, meeting Tito and see them play, I mean, it was just amazing. [Later] my dad and I went to New York to see Tito play at the Palladium and the Corso, all these clubs that, you know, there are like four different bands playing. We didn’t have something like that in the Bay Area! And when you’d go to New York you’d hear these 10, 15-piece bands, playing multiple clubs in one night till 5 in the morning — you just go, “What is this?!” … I was about 15.

5. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your dad?

My dad has taught me to be on time and learn your craft, learn your music, practice. If there’s a situation where you’re going to perform live or in the studio, if you have the music ahead of time to learn it, understand it — so when you walk into the room you’re gonna feel good about yourself, which gives you confidence, and it helps you to enjoy what your craft is, what your gift is. Preparation means everything … And to treat others respectfully. I just watched him respect his musicians, and how he was a leader and treated his musicians as family. That’s what I’ve done my whole life.

6. You were actually very close to Prince and you played with him for years. What do you miss the most about him?  

HIM! [Laughs.] Which encompasses a lot. The times that we had. And being in the studio, just hanging out, playing music, making up music, you know, writing, jamming, parties, playing for parties. Just having fun. And competing against each other! Teaching each other, sharing new music. Just everything about him.

7. You were also Tito Puente’s goddaughter. How do you remember him?

He was hilarious! He was so much fun, he was always a jokester. If you didn’t know him, you thought he was stern, but he would do that on purpose, just messing with people. […] Some of the funnest times where when he and Celia [Cruz] where together and they make each other laugh. He picked on her all the time, and they were just funny together, like brother and sister, fighting all the time.

8. Any particular anecdote with him?

I just remember when we were going to New York and my dad and I would go to sit with him, […] we never saw any other young girls playing at the time. It was different for me as a woman, to sit with these guys [in the band], and he would always tell them, “Just leave her alone, she’s gonna play what she’s gonna play.” You know, even if I didn’t understand the music completely, he understood what my heart felt about the music, because I didn’t read [music]. And then he would tell me, “Don’t listen to those guys, they don’t know what they’re talking about. You just go play and you just be you.”

9. As a young Latina musician, who did you look up to growing up?

Basically my dad, and my mom. My parents were just — and still are — amazing. Actually, right when I just got on [this Zoom call], they just knocked on the door and came to my house, so I get to see them often, I talk to them constantly, they’re always with me. They were my role models and my inspiration, and still are. You know, for them to still be alive and doing well and healthy, still in love with each other and married — they’re going on 68 years in October — it’s a big deal! They mean everything to me.

10. What’s your first memory playing drums?

Well, the first time I played with my dad I was 5 years old. I remember the process of getting dressed at my grandmother’s house, dressing up really pretty, and then I remember waking the stairs [to the club] and hearing my dad’s band — he was playing with his brothers. This is in Oakland and I can hear the music. We got to the door, he saw my mom and he said, “I wanna introduce my wife and my daughter Sheila. She’s gonna come up and play.” So we walked to the stage, and I remember all the audience partying and clapping. I remember literally just my dad picking me up on the stage and standing me on a stool to play the congas. I just remember everything up to that point. He said that I played well, but I don’t remember.

11. Do you play every day nowadays?

No. When I was living at home [with my parents], in my teenage years, I was playing a lot. But no. I mean, I have drums in my home and my studio, and when someone comes over and I have to record, a lot of times I don’t touch my instrument until I get on stage.

12. What do you like doing besides music? What do you enjoy?

Oh, I enjoy life! I love being outside and nature. Walking, bike riding. I used to skate all the time, playing basketball outside, swimming. I love sports, I love going to the basketball games, professional, NBA, WNBA, football. Anything having to do with sports! I love playing ping-pong, pool. My whole family, we’re all into sports, and we love competing against each other. And I love going to other countries and learning about the food and the community.

13. What was the last country that you visited?  

Spain. I was in Gaucin, Spain.

14. Favorite food?

It’s simple. I love making fresh juices in the morning, green drinks to start my morning with something really good. Later on in the day my food changes and I want potato chips and popcorn. It’s a balance. But I love Japanese food and I love all kinds of food! I really do.

15. Do you like cooking?

I do — I love grilling outside. Sometimes, even if it’s cold and it’s raining, I’ll still go outside and grill. I make amazing steaks, fish. I [also] make great gumbo.

16. Any young female musician you admire and are rooting for?

Oh my Gosh, there’s so many it would be unfair for me just to mention a few. What I do, when I have a couple of minutes, I’ll go on social media and I’ll look to see — you know, because of the algorithms it will tend to steer you away to find other people. So I’m always trying to encourage young women playing not just drums, but any instrument. I just reached out to another young girl last night and she D.M. me this morning and she was just like, blown away. “Oh my God, you have no idea,” she said. “I started playing percussion and drums because of you. I started at 9 years old and you are my idol.” And I just love hearing that. “Thank you for your gift,” it’s what I said to her. But there’s so many.

17. What does it feel like to be called the Queen of Percussion?

There are so many amazing queens playing percussion right now that I have seen that can outplay me for sure, and I can’t wait for them to be discovered, because they’re so amazing. So it’s a blessing and I’m humbled by it, but there are so many others that can play as well and should be called Queen of Percussion.

18. If you weren’t a drummer, what would you be?

I would be an athlete! I was training to be in the Olympics when I was younger in school. I did track and field, I was a sprint runner, I was very fast. And I also played soccer for 5 years.

19. I saw you recently in the documentary The Greatest Night in Pop. What did you think about it?

I thought it was really good. I mean, I didn’t know who was going to be in it, they just said, “We want to do an interview,” and I was like, “Sure!” After I left later at 4:00 in the morning [the night of the recording of “We Are The World” in 1985,] I didn’t know what transpired after, so it was nice to see. And it brought back wonderful memories of what I had accomplished that night [when I also played at the American Music Awards right before]. That was one of the biggest nights in my career.

20. If there was a movie about your life, who should play you?

There are women that have come out to me to say, “I’m gonna play you if you ever do a movie.” [Laughs.] [Actress] Nicole Parker, she was one a long time ago […] and I was like, “Absolutely!” And Nicole Scherzinger, from the Pussycat Dolls, we talked to her a long time ago. She’s amazing, and she’s like, “I would love to do it.” And I said, “Well, I will have to teach you some timbales!” And then early on, when we were thinking of doing something, my nieces played percussion and they of course look related to me, so that was a good find for playing me when they were younger.

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