Pete Escovedo & Sheila E.

It’s A Family Affair

No matter which musical style is considered hot at any given time, there’s a good chance that someone else did it first, and maybe even did it better. Remember when swing hit big a few years ago? Horn players loved the work and slick young dancers learned all the right moves, but the sound had been around for the better part of 60 years. And with the success of so many rap-rock acts lately, it helps to remember that Rage Against the Machine released its first album in 1992.

So when Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, and Marc Antony all started integrating Latin American rhythms and sounds into their music a couple years back, industry folks proclaimed Latin American rhythms the next big thing. Suddenly, Latin was in.

And that’s not to suggest that plenty of people don’t deserve popular recognition. Carlos Santana has certainly paid his dues over the past 30 years, and the folks from the Buena Vista Social Club have been concentrating on their sounds for generations. But when we think about Latin jazz and Latin drumming, one name sits at the top of the all-star list – a name of not only a person, but a family, a philosophy, and, most importantly, a perfect example of dedication to an art despite popular whim. That name is Escovedo.

DRUM! spoke with Pete Escovedo and his daughter, Sheila E., wanting to tap into a pulse that has rooted Latin rhythms in American culture for the past 30-odd years. From Pete’s early days with Santana and Sheila’s start with George Duke; through Pete’s orchestra and Sheila’s pop hits in the ’80s; to now, when both have new albums that keep the family name and rhythms in our minds – this family refuses to quit.

So what’s their take on Latin sounds and rhythms that have suddenly become so popular? How does it feel to work your entire life on an art form that, when it’s finally realized by the masses, may or may not be just a passing fad? And what is it like to be a member of one of the most influential and creative families to play the timbales?

“Well, to sort of go back to the beginning for me, my dad was a frustrated singer who wanted to play and actually sing in a big band, so his love of the music carried on to myself and my brothers,” Pete says. “He used to take us along for the ride to go hear these big bands, there were probably five or six different ballrooms here in [the San Francisco Bay Area] that my dad used to frequently go to. He would like to go in and sit in with the bands. They were mostly the bands from out of town. They were all bands from different parts of the country. They would have these Latin dances in the afternoon and so we would tag along and listen to a lot of this music coming out of the hall. That I guess planted the seed in us.”

Well, it certainly helps to have music in the house. And so, as Sheila grew up, she also was exposed to some powerful music and musicians, which led to her taking up the drums at an early age. But her manner of learning was a bit different from her father’s.

“I learned by watching and listening, so if I saw him play, whatever his right hand would do my left hand would do and vice versa,” Sheila says. “But when I sat down to play, once he got up the drums were already set up for a right-handed player, so I didn’t know I was playing left handed on a set for a right handed player.

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“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.”

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While important percussionists, the Escovedos are really more than just drummers. Their consistency in voice and commitment to their art transcends timbales and congas. They do it all – play, write, perform, record – and nothing slows them down. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be anything that they don’t take to with energy and commitment. It’s not a question of being bored on the road (they’re not) or liking touring better than recording (they love both equally), but how to make the best of every opportunity to play music.

“Each thing is an experience so it’s always fun to do something different and do it differently each time,” Pete says. “We can always use a different studio, different people each time, different musicians, different writers. And that becomes the challenge of it: How can we make this thing work?”

Here, finally, the lines between art and drumming start to blur. But even great artists can’t ignore business. And as we mentioned at the opening of this article, American pop consumers have finally embraced the sounds of Latin music. How does this affect the Escovedos?

“It’s definitely a plus for all of us, because I think now we’re finally getting a lot more recognition,” Pete said. “Radio stations are playing a lot of the music that’s not just Latin jazz, it’s the pop, it’s the traditional types of music like Texano, that comes out of Texas. When you think of Latin music, it covers a lot because each Latin country has their own specific style of music and playing. And so a lot of that is finally being brought out, the music of South America and Brazil. So much of it is out there and it’s great there’s finally an upsurge and Latin music is finally really taking hold.”

But, as Sheila explained, nothing is ever so simple. “I do think it’s wonderful that Latin music has come to the forefront now, but I hate to see that, now that Latin music has come out, Latin people are in,” she said. “For me, racially, it gets a little weird. I think it’s kind of sad sometimes that we couldn’t be recognized just as people instead of ’Latin music is in so Latin people are in.’ Sometimes I feel very strange about it.”

What, then, would make the difference? Is it somehow possible to actually give credit where credit is due? Or will the whole fixation just turn into a fad? “I would really like to see more recognition of the musicians and/or entertainers who have been around for a long time,” Sheila says. “They stuck to their guns with the music that they have wanted to play all of their lives, and have not changed or swayed either way.”

So it becomes important to recognize those who have made a difference, and not just gravitate toward albums that sell the most or stars who look the best. “It would be really nice if they would let some of these great musicians, while they’re still alive, perform and give them some of that prime time recognition,” Pete says. “Because I think what happens is that you look back in the years at a lot of the great musicians who have been at it for so many years, and of course we understand it’s all about ratings, it’s all about selling, it’s all about …”

“Record sales,” Sheila finishes.

“But at the same time, if you’re going to deal with music, then let’s deal with the music and great musicians,” Pete continues.

“Let’s just be fair about it,” Sheila says.

“Sure,” says Pete. “They don’t have to sell 50 million records, I mean, what does that mean?”

“Politically, sometimes, it’s incorrect.”

“It’s not about how many records you sell, it’s about …”

“The musicianship, yeah.”

“That’s what counts, I think.”

“That’s the problem too – not to cut in,” Sheila says. “But back in the day, when these musicians were first starting out, we didn’t have television like we do now, we didn’t have award shows. There are probably another five or ten award shows that popped up again this year. There’s an award for everything, and that’s what I’m saying – politically it would be nice for them to show some respect for some of these people who have been around that didn’t have the chance to do that.”

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Pete doesn’t want to be specific about who deserves credit or awards. If Latin jazz and Latin drumming are to survive, there needs to be some sense of recognition for all of the performers, especially the older ones. But this extends past just the Academy Awards. Now the young players must grab onto the history and bring it forward into the 21st century.

“I really like the idea that a lot of younger players are going back to the roots of the music and learning the history. A lot of them are not swayed by the fact that you have to really go commercial,” Pete explains. “I think if they can really go back and look at what a lot of the older guys have set forth for them, that would be nice. I think the future probably would mean that a lot of them are probably going to have to take chances and try and go further with the music. Experiment, take it somewhere else, build on it, take some chances and don’t get stuck in the background or going with the flow or what’s happening this year. Just try to take the music somewhere else.”

And so this family continues to prove to the world, by example, that music is important, and that harboring a sense of music and art in the family is, perhaps, the most important thing one can have in the household. Sheila now has a line of percussion for kids called the Sheila E. Player Kids Series, designed by her and Toca Percussion. By bringing real drums, not toys, into the home, Sheila hopes to educate kids and meld music and family, just like in her household.

“We’re just trying to help them, encourage parents to spend more time with their kids in the home, and establish a relationship,” she explains. “So our family, as a whole, is constantly working at trying to educate the kids and let them know it’s okay to learn and play drums.”

It’s evident that, for the Escovedos, their world isn’t so much about drumming as it is about family, entertainment, and, most importantly, commitment to their art. But it’s the drumming that holds them together and focuses their talents – keeps them in our minds. Without the drumming, there would be no Escovedo clan to make us wish we had more music in our own homes.

But they seem to know that too.

“[It’s important] when you listen back to it and the groove is there,” Pete says. “That’s the first thing: As drummers, it’s that pulse that really tells the story for us. That’s the important thing for us, because we’re drummers, we like to feel the song. And by feeling the song, that rhythm has to be really strong. We have to lay that down. We have to lock that in with the bass player, and whoever plays bass or whoever plays the rest of the instruments, we build those things on top of whatever we do so that the basic fundamental of the rhythm section is what really makes the thing happen. So that’s the strong point, that we feel that pulse together, like one heartbeat all on that one beat that makes it all work.”