“Our techniques are different, just from a generation,” she continues. “Five to ten years earlier than myself, that generation plays totally different than we do, even my dad and I. Every five years or so, seven years, there’s a new generation of kids that are playing entirely different than what we do. My dad’s style of playing is the old style of Tito Puente. They take their time. They play with a lot of space, they talk in pauses, they play in pauses, which is great because they don’t do a lot of rolls, it’s not about how fast and how much you can do. It’s very tasteful, and people don’t play like that any more.”
While it’s true that people don’t play like that anymore, it also helps if you’re exposed to passionate people, like the percussionists and performers from Cuba and Latin America, at an early age. “My introduction to Latin percussion was the fact that, back in those days, no one really taught anyone how to play,” Pete says. “If you didn’t go see [Cuban players] and hang out with them and become their friend, you were not going to get any instruction because nobody was teaching that stuff in school. There weren’t videos or books. Nothing was available. Everything was close-knit. I think a lot of the Cuban musicians and a lot of the Puerto Rican musicians come from New York. They kept everything pretty much in a tight circle, which was more family tradition and who you knew.”
But without instruction or some sort of formalized schooling, can someone maintain professional-quality technique? While the road certainly offers regular rehearsals, one would imagine that top-notch players like Sheila and Pete have a pretty strict practice regime.
“Yeah, we never practice,” Pete says.
“We never practice, it’s true,” Sheila says.
“I’m probably the worst,” Pete explains. “And I hate to even say this to a lot of younger players, because they should really practice and actually really go to school and really learn the real fundamentals and the actual schooling of what music really is. That’s the only thing that I regret about my career and my ability in playing. I play only the way I’ve learned because I’m self-taught. And that’s my style, whether it be right or wrong, I don’t even know. I just go out there and I play.”
But before you give up your practice pad, remember that Sheila and Pete have been performing for quite some time – a lot longer than most. And with that experience comes a certain type of wisdom, an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Don’t forget that in addition to being a percussionist, Sheila has written some pretty sharp pop songs.
With years of experience, then, she takes a pretty broad look at songwriting and how she integrates drumming into her songs. “It depends on, for me, what type of music I’m going to play,” says Sheila. “It’s always a different way of writing. If it’s a great melody, it’s a great song. People will remember it because they can sing it not because they remember the rhythm, really. It’s the melody that will create the great song. Songwriting for me is melody and every situation for me is different.”
Her flexibility certainly shows in her recent work on both her new album Writes Of Passage with her new band the E Train, and on Pete’s new album, EMusic, which she co-produced and played drums on with her father. It’s on EMusic that one actually hears the family name come together as both Sheila and Pete bring their talents to bear. How, then, did Pete feel about his daughter as a producer?
“Well, she knows me better than I know me, so it was real easy,” Pete explains. “She brought so much into the session. I think the magic was there, the magic that we share of playing together with all these different people. And the fact that, a lot of times male musicians don’t like to take advice from a woman, but they were all so very cool and Sheila just brought in a whole different side to it that was really inspirational. And I think that they all felt it – I’m definitely sure they did. And of course her knowledge of the music biz and her knowledge of the studio was very, very helpful.”
“I didn’t know I was going to produce the record, first of all,” says Sheila. “And then my dad called and I started helping him put the band together and was telling him it would be really nice for him to do the record here in Los Angeles. I can get a good studio and we can record live like we used to back in the day, which is my favorite way to record. For him, because he’s so used to performing, I think that’s the best way to feature him as an artist. [One day] my manager asked him something and he said, ’No, Sheila’s producing the record.’ And I went, ’Really?’ I was just helping. I said, ’Pops, whatever you want help with, I’ll help you with it. I want to make this easy for you and have a lot of fun.’ This is what we do for a living and so we want to enjoy it and not be stressful.”