SHEILA E: THE STEADY BEAT OF RESILIENCY

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In her new memoir, percussionist Sheila E. celebrates success and stares down her demons.

By Steve Houk

It’s the 1960s in San Francisco, and the times they are a-changin’. America is erupting in a lava flow of upheaval…spiritually, politically, culturally, and yes, musically, and San Francisco is the epicenter. The Dead, Airplane, Santana, Janis, Sly… it was a time.

In the Escovedo household, the magic of the beat is what really mattered. Hanging around their house, you easily could have heard any number of instruments at any given time, new and exciting sounds made by a cream of the crop group of percussionists and musicians, many of whom would be future successful recording artists. Some would become downright legends. Papa Pete Escovedo, uncles Coke (of Santana fame), Javier, Bobby, Mario and Alejandro (yes, him), all creating a cacophony of amazing beats and sounds. Over there shaking it by the window might be godfather Tito —  as in Tito Puente. As far as raw percussive instinct and musical talent in a changing musical landscape, this was an extended family that was at the core of a new movement.

In the middle of it all was a little girl. Sheila Escovedo, whom Carlos Santana would later affectionately nickname “Butterfly.” Sheila became immersed in all those wondrous beats and rhythms. Amidst the light and the dark of her childhood, she would absorb it all and eventually embrace that legacy, creating a life and career that surpassed even her and her family’s wildest dreams. And it all began right in the heart of San Fran.

“You could catch a bus and go down the street or watch on a couple a different corners and just hear music constantly,” she said. “We used to hear Sly rehearse while sitting out on the street. Everyone had a band. And I was always like, ‘Hey can I sit in, can I sit in?’ and they’d say, ‘Get away, little girl,’ ya know?”

Sheila E., as she became known worldwide, finally did sit in with the boys, despite the typical gender backlash, and became a miraculous product of a mix of good genes, hard work, and, by her own courageous admission, the darkness of abuse. Forty-plus years later, she has established herself as a gifted, world-renowned musician boasting hit records and A-List collaborations with Marvin Gaye, Prince, Ringo Starr, Kanye West and Beyoncé among many others, finding a level of success few ever do.

In town this week to promote her new memoir, The Beat Of My Own Drum, Sheila E. will be at Barnes and Noble in Bethesda starting at 7pm on Thursday. She is scheduled to perform Friday, November 7, with her father at the National Museum of African Art’s 50th anniversary. The evening celebrates Bill Cosby’s donation of some of his private art collection to the museum. And last but certainly not least, she remains very involved with her Elevate Hope organization, which raises funds to improve student academic achievement and attendance through music and arts programming.

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After decades of success and triumph, Sheila E. said she was finally prepared to put it all out there for the world to see. Given what she’s been through, it has taken some time to be able to let it all out in a memoir.

“I started to write it when I was in my 30s,” the sweet and affable Sheila E said by telephone during a brief stop in Los Angeles. “I realized I wasn’t ready to do it. It was too painful. But then I sat down for a couple of hours and started writing my testimony. … It just took the wind out of me. I couldn’t realize that I was actually reading about myself. But that was the beginning of the healing process for me, as far as figuring out who I was, what had happened to me.”

Amidst the satisfaction and release of recollecting her many achievements, Sheila had to explore every side of herself during the writing process, and like many victims of sexual abuse, that meant delving into parts of her life that were very difficult to face. Yet, they needed to be confronted in order to help her as well as those who don’t have as large a pulpit as she has.

“I carried around anger all the time. I was mad and I didn’t understand why,” Sheila said. “That’s why I go back to talking about how important music was in my life. I mean, my childhood was amazing, it was great. But when you go back, really, it’s like having a therapist, you go back and you start thinking about why I was so angry and mad at people. Once I realized that, it was like learning who I was and really starting over again. When you confront the truth, it allows you to grow and heal. We all carry things, but once you let that go, things peel off of you like an onion, or the bags of guilt and shame and all these other things start coming off you. You just live your life the way we should live it. I’m not the only one.”

Amidst the creative release of crafting her memoir, Sheila found inspiration to write more music, and her new album Icon was born. She said she found many of her stories were ideal as songs.

“Often there was just acoustic guitar and no melody or lyrics, but the story of it made sense,” she said. “It just happened to be the right time. I couldn’t have planned it, and if I could have, it would be different.”

Sheila E. has found a comfortable place in her illustrious and hard-fought career. She can look back, acknowledge her experiences and move on. It’s all about acceptance and resilience for this very special by-product of the Escovedo percussion dynasty.

“The things that happened to me, I won’t forget them, I’ll never forget, but I have forgiven,” she said. “That’s an important part of being able to really look at how awesome my life has been. And I would not change anything.”

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