Sheila Escovedo is striking and diminutive, and can spark a band with the flash of a smile or an outrageous, ingenious percussion lick. At the age of twenty-four, she has performed with Billy Cobham, George Duke, Alphonso Johnson, Azteca, Harvey Mason, Labelle, and Spyro Gyra. Sheila also has two records out on Fantasy with her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo.
The Escovedo Family has been a percussive force in the San Francisco area dating back to the 1950s, when Pete and Coke began playing nightclubs and after-hours spots all around the bay. Both brothers have been featured in Santana, were major forces in Azteca, and have been part of many other Latin fusion projects. To say that Sheila was around music as a child is a dramatic understatement. But it is amaz ing how much of the technique, innate knowledge, and flair for playing she picked up just from being around it.
Sheila now has several projects going. She performs in local nightclubs with Pete once or twice a month, and the musical chemistry there is something to behold. An old band of Sheila’s, Kick, gets gigs from time to time, and is still a powerful unit, featuring Ray Obiedo on guitar, Curtis Ohlsen on bass, vocalist Linda Tillery, and other fixtures from the local scene. But Sheila’s funk band is what has taken the bulk of her time over the last year and a half. It is the first band of which Sheila has been leader, and at the time of our inter view they were close to a recording deal with Solar Records.
When Kick opened a recent show for Narada Michael Walden’s Warriors, Sheila put on a virtual percussion clinic. The independence of her arms during her conga solo was a visual and musical wonder for the crowd. Whenever she switched instruments, to timbales, bells, shekere, whatever, it seemed to give the rhythm a new kick. Sheila kept rallying the band all night, and that ability should continue to carry her far.
RT: I heard that the first instrument you were trained in was violin.
SE: Yeah. My father wanted me to play violin and play in an orchestra. That was his dream for me, but I didn’t want that. I played drums when I was small, so when I became fourteen or fifteen I began playing drums again. And then when I played a concert for him in front of thousands of people, I just said, “This is it.” So I gave violin up.
RT: I guess you at least got a lot of music training on violin.
SE: Yeah, I did. I took it for five years, and I had two or three scholarships that I turned down, because I didn’t want to play by Robin Tolleson violin, even though I liked it at times. What changed it too was the people I was hanging around with. It was square to play the violin, so that made it even easier to get out of it.
RT: Your heart just wasn’t in it.
SE: No. Drums.
RT: Where did you get training on drums?
SE: My father. I think my first gig was at Sam’s Ballroom when I was five. It was Pete and Coke and Phil Escovedo—the Escovedo Brothers Band. I remember my mother dressing me up in a white dress and black patent leather shoes, and taking me to my father’s club to see him play. And I sat in. I had to sit on a stool, but…
He used to just play around the house, and just from being around it all the time I kind of picked it up. Even though I played when I was small, I didn’t start playing again until I was thirteen or fourteen. I’m really into sports, and all during that time I ran track, and played soccer for eight years, so I was mainly into that. But all of a sudden I started playing congas again, and when I did it only took about two months to learn everything that I do know now. So it just started coming out. I guess it was always there.
RT: Is conga a physical instrument?
SE: I think every instrument is, in a way. I mean if that’s what you want to play, if that’s your axe, it’s physical. I think so.
RT: I saw Raul Rekow of Santana recently, and was amazed at the size of his arms. He says he plays wrong, with his arms more than his wrists.
SE: Yeah, and that’s a hard gig for him to do, playing with Carlos. Because they have to play two- or three-hour shows, sometimes twice a night. And when you get into a rock ‘n’ roll band like that, and you’r e kind of like the side person, you have to put out a lot more because you’re really not being featured. You have to really play hard because a lot of times you’re just a color added to the music. So he has to really play with his arms, where for me, in a lot of bands I’ve played with, that’s not really my technique. If I do play like that, I get tired too fast. My technique is playing with my wrists. But if I played with my arms I probably would have arms like that. I’m glad I don’t.
RT: What kind of music was being played in your house when you were small?
SE: Latin music. Salsa. There were a lot of people. I didn’t know who was who, and I didn’t understand it, until I got older. But it was like Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, a lot of people like that. Salsa bands from New York or Cuba. And a lot of jazz too.
RT: What instrumentalists have influenced you the most?
SE: The person who probably really influenced me was my father, only because I lived with him. He brought me up. I was his child, and just being around that, he influenced me to play. If it wasn’t for him being in that, I don’t think I would have been in it. But as far as musicians now, I listen to everybody and every instrument, so it’s a variety of things. It’s not just percussionists or drummers. It’s everybody. Musicians, period. Guitar players, singers, everybody.
RT: I enjoyed your work on Alphonso Johnson’s Moonshadows album. One song, “As Little As You,” has you doing a lot of slide type sounds on congas. What do you call that technique?
SE: You mean where it goes, “Vooooom.” I don’t even know. I don’t think anybody does know what that is. They just made it up, really. You know, you just wet your finger, hit the drum and rub the skin on the inside of your finger, and it makes that sound. Your fingernails have to be short. It’s strange, I don’t know what you would call it. Everybody says, “Hey, what’s that thing you do where you lick your finger and do the slide?” I won der if there is a name; I really don’t know.
RT: There are some songs on the Johnson album in odd time signatures. Were you used to playing in odd times when you went in to do the album?
SE: It was different for me, because at that time I was playing with Billy Cobham. He showed my father and me a lot of stuff, not really sitting down to show us, but just from playing with him. He played in all kinds of signatures, which I never even played in before. And half the time you can’t count it; you just have to feel it. If you count it you could get lost. And to play the 7/4, the first time I had to count to see where the “1” was, and after that you just keep on playing. But to really play through all that stuff you have to feel it, you can’t count it. I think on different time signatures like that, other than 4/4 or 6/8, it de pends on what you want to play—your own style. I don’t think there’s a lot of certain beats. Usually for 4/4 there are three or four beats you can play. With 7/4, whatever you feel like playing fits, as long as you come back down on the ” 1″.
RT: How old were you when you first went on tour with Azteca?
SE: I was fifteen or sixteen. We did a few States gigs—I think we went to Denver and some places in Colorado—and after that we went to Bogota, Columbia. We went overseas, and that was an experience in itself. I didn’t know what it was like over there, and that was in ’73 or ’74. You’d walk off the plane and see people with machine guns. It kind of scares you, and I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think I’d ever been on a plane. It took us a couple days to get out of there. We had to pay our way out; the government didn’t want us to leave. They thought we were smuggling a bunch of cocaine. We weren’t. That was when platform shoes were in, and their platform shoes were real cheap, and they were leather. I remember I got about four pair, and my dad got three, because they were only about ten or fifteen dollars each. I remember getting those, and going to the airport. They pulled the bottoms off of all our shoes, because they thought we were smuggling stuff in the heels. I was real mad at that. It was crazy. So we ended up pay ing about $3000 to get out, because they wanted us to pay a whole bunch of taxes on the money we made there. And they kept our equipment, so it was like $30,000 of our equipment over there. They finally sent it a week later—we thought we had lost it.
RT: Speaking of equipment, what kind of congas and percussion are you playing now?
SE: My congas are LPs. Mostly all of LP’s percussion stuff, and other odds and ends from different companies that make things LP doesn’t. I use Yamaha drums and Paiste cymbals.
RT: You mentioned that you learned most all your conga technique in about a two month
period. That’s almost hard to believe. How did you learn to play the small percussion—the toys?
SE: I don’t know. I just started buying things when I was in George’s band. He said, “Do you have this? Do you have that?” I said, “No,” so I went out and got it. And I kind of knew, I guess, how to play everything, because wherever I felt like something should be, that’s where I played it. And I guess that’s how I learned, because nobody really taught me. Somebody should have taught me, because half the things I play, I don’t know what they’re called. I don’t know the names of the beats, I just play what I feel. In my first band we played a lot of Santana stuff and things like that but it was original. I was playing drums in that band, and they wanted to get this other drummer, because he had a P.A. So I thought they were going to fire me, and they said, “No, why don’t you play congas?” We had a conga player already, and he turned out to be my boyfriend. So he started showing me these beats, and I started playing them. And every time he showed me something I’d add something else, and he’d say, “What are you doing?” I’d say, “I don’t know.” He’d say, “Well where did you learn to do that?” I’d say, “I don’t know. I just…I don’t know.” So he showed me as much as he could, and then all of a sudden, that whole month that we were playing, rehearsing everyday with the band, I kept learning more. Then the second month I just passed him up, and was taking solos. I don’t know what happened; it was really crazy. I can’t believe it either, but that’s the only way I can explain how it happened. I just started playing a bunch of things, and what was strange was that I don’t even play the way you’re supposed to play. You are supposed to have the conga in front of you, and the tumba on the right side, if you’re right-handed. So you slap with your right hand and you have the tumba on your right side. And because of watching my father, I slap with my left hand, but I still have the tumba on my right side. So I’m playing with both hands on all the drums, and it makes me play faster. Usually if you play with your right hand you have to do everything with that one hand, and the left is just like to keep time with, and play the in-between fills. But this way I’m playing a lot faster. There were a lot of things he showed me that were kind of awkward to me, but I learned to play like that. The same for timbales. I think you’re supposed to play, if you’re right handed, with the bell on the right side, the high drum on the right side, and the low drum on the left side. I play the bell on the right side, the high drum on the left side, and the low drum on the right. Bongos even, everything is mixed up. It’s crazy, I don’t know how I ended up playing things like this.
RT: So no one ever sat you down and said, “This is a mambo.”
SE: No, never.
RT: Did you ever learn those many different rhythms?
SE: No. I learned them only by listening, and not even trying to listen, but just going to see people play, or listening to records. And I just played it. But people laugh at me to this day because I do not know the difference between this beat and that beat. There are different kind of rhumbas that have three or four parts to every section, and I don’t know what they are. I’ve had time to sit down and learn it, but I never have. When I was small and learned to play, I would be right across from my fa ther and I would play every beat he’d play, and that’s why I ended up being left handed. He was right-handed, so everything he did with his right hand I’d do with my left hand. And that’s how I learned to play that way. I don’t remember learning when I was small. I just remember playing that one gig. I don’t know why. I even asked him, “Did I really play it?” He said, “Yes, I don’t know how you remember it, but you did. He didn’t want me to play drums at all. He said, “No, no, no. You just stay in violin and stay in your sports. ” I broke a few records in track and I was really into that. But all of a sudden I just wanted to play drums, and I just started playing. Even when I tried to get in his band, he told me, “No, you’re not good enough, and you don’t want to be in this business.” He told me everything to depress me not to play drums, or be in the business. But I finally convinced him. His conga player, Victor Pantoja, had gotten sick, and I told him to let me play the gig. He said, “No,” but he couldn’t find anybody. I told him I knew the songs and to just let me play. I had never played with a band that big in my life. I don’t even know what made me say I could do it. I just said it, and had no idea whether I could do it or not. I just kind of felt that I could do the job. I don’t even think we had a rehearsal. He played the album for me, and told me what the tunes were, and what we were going to go into. And he couldn’t believe it. He said, “I can’t believe you’re doing this. This isn’t right.” So I played the gig, and people went crazy. I said, “This is it, I’m going to quit high school.” I didn’t finish high school, and I played music.
RT: Did you learn anything about playing traps while working with Billy Cobham?
SE: I think I did, not that he even taught me. After his roadie would set up all his drums. He does things like press rolls, and even does it backwards with both sides of the stick, and it still sounds the same. He does things you would not believe.
RT: Did you learn anything about the recording process from being in the studio with him?
SE: Yeah, because I think that was one of the first times I was ever really in the studio too. I learned what things should sound like. How to mike the congas—I watched that. How to mike the drums, and what kind of sound he got. Overdubbing this, and trying to EQ that. I tried to sit there and listen and learn, which was important, because it helps me now. Now when I go into the studio I know what I want to hear. My father had been in the studio too, so I also listened to him. Even though it was my father’s and my album, my father would mostly say everything about this or that. I was scared to say things, because I felt like I didn’t know anything, but after a while I started speaking up because I learned a lot from them. And I think they taught me good, because it’s paying off.
RT: The guys in Santana’s percussion section were saying that they had been frustrated in the studio by engineers and producers who really didn’t know much about percussion.
SE: Yeah, that’s true. But in doing the album with Billy, it was easy because he is a percussionist in a way. And he loves percussion—he just went crazy. We could put ten million things on. But I’ve done a lot of different albums, and there are a lot of producers who don’t understand. Sometimes they hear something and want you to play it their way, which sometimes to us seems real stupid. A lot of things can’t be so complicated because then it doesn’t sell. Commercial stuff. And sometimes producers don’t even let you express what you’re trying to do. Sometimes half the conga beats that they make you play, you could play with one hand because they’re so simple. You really do get frustrated, and it’s hard. But it’s starting to open up now.
RT: How did you get with the George Duke band? Was that through Billy?
SE: Through Billy. Before my father and I did our album, Billy said he was going to do an album. He said he was going to call us in about six months, which seemed so long—I said, “Yeah, Okay.” He did call us, and we did his album. That was the first time I met George Duke, and Ray Gomez was on guitar. I think Alphonso Johnson was on bass. And George was saying that he and Billy were going to split up their thing pretty soon, and he said he was going to call me. And I didn’t believe him either, but he did call. I went to L.A. for rehearsals and stuff. He got the band together who he thought would work, and everybody worked. That band stayed together for about two or three tours; two, three, or four years. And that was the best band I’ve ever been in. It was fun. I’ve been in a lot of other bands, but George’s band was like a family. It was sad that it had to break up, only because of the business thing, which wasn’t together, and people couldn’t take it any more. But George is really doing good now, and we’re still trying to talk him into getting the band back together—doing a band album or something. A lot of people miss it, from what I hear. I wouldn’t mind doing it.
RT: You were playing a lot of timbales in that band.
SE: Yeah, I was. I was playing a lot of everything. He had me playing keyboards, drums, congas, and timbales, and out singing and dancing. So that was fun. He let you do what you really wanted. If you wanted to try something that you never did before, he’d let you do it. It was very open. And if it worked, fine, if it didn’t well, let’s try something else. But he had us doing all kinds of crazy things. We did whatever we wanted, and it was really fun. I think I was at my best playing with George, because we were constantly working, and to play in his band you had to play good all the time.
You had to stay at your best. So playing every day, two or three shows a day, I just kept playing and playing, and I was really happy with my playing then. For the last two years I’ve mostly been playing trap drums and trying to sing. So as far as my conga chops, they’ve kind of been cooled out. I wish they weren’t. But playing with George, playing all those gigs, you play every night and you build up endurance.
RT: Do you have pain in your hands when you play congas?
SE: Oh yeah. I would always tell the sound guy to turn the congas up at the beginning of the show because my hands wouldn’t be numb enough until the middle of the show for me to really play hard. So on the first song, every single time, I would have tears coming out. I’d be smiling but there would be tears coming out of my eyes because it would hurt so bad. You had to literally just hit them so hard that your hands got numb until you got used to playing. And that’s every night. And that’s what I’m saying about Raul: I don’t see how they can do it—him and Armando. I mean that’s every night, and they play hard. I couldn’t play that hard; that would kill me. After a while you get the callouses, and you get blood clots. My hands aren’t too bad right now, because I haven’t been playing that much, but you get blood clots and stuff. When they get that bad, they burst and you get blood all over. Then people really go crazy. “Oh, it’s blood!” And the bad thing about it is there are a lot of conga players who play hard, after so many times of hitting the drums that hard, there’s something that happens that makes you urinate blood. And I think that’s happened to Raul and Armando. I know it’s happened to Francisco Aguabella and Mongo, from playing so hard. Somebody explained it to me before, and it’s pretty painful for that to happen.
RT: Did you know Raul before he joined Santana?
SE: Oh yeah. He was my idol for a while. I’d seen him in Malo. And when I saw him play he did all these rolls and he was so fast. I said, “Golly, I wonder what it would be like to play with him.” And this promoter used to take me and another girl around to have us sit in with bands, which was crazy. I always felt bad about it, you know, when people force other people to play. And I remember one time we got to California Hall in San Francisco and Raul’s band was playing. I wanted to play with them really bad, so I think I sat in and played. Raul didn’t want me to, I don’t think, but I sat in. And after that we became friends. But Raul was one of the first that I saw who could play that fast and that good, and that hard.
RT: In George Duke’s band you were working with Ndugu on drums.
SE: He is really good. He’s into percussion too, so it’s really easy to work with him. He had a lot of ideas. He was with Santana too, and he produced a couple of albums. He knew a lot about the percussion, so it was easy for me to learn some things from him too. That was the first time in a while that I had played the trap drums. He suggested I play them.
RT: I saw Ndugu at a clinic, and he was saying that a drummer who works with a percussionist really has to make sure he doesn’t overplay, and add too much stuff.
SE: Yeah, it’s for both of us. It’s on us for either of us to lay the time—the beat— down. If he wants to stretch out, I should be able to just lay that thing down. And if I want to stretch out, he can’t overplay, or it becomes real complicated. Especially if you’re playing a tune with so much energy, everybody wants to go out, which at times we ended up doing anyway. Because it’s hard to hold that feeling. You just want to go out, and go crazy. So we have to feel each other out and do it at just the right times. At least we did it at the right times, and that’s just by playing together for so long. It worked out to where we knew when somebody was going to do something. And I’d just play, and vice-versa.
RT: What do you look for generally in a drummer?
SE: Time. How consistent his time is. He doesn’t have to do a whole lot. It’s hard to play with a drummer if he doesn’t lay that thing down where it’s supposed to be laid, at the right time. Then he’s not a very good drummer. That’s very important, especially in the studio, and I learned that when I was younger. When I did that Alphonso Johnson album, with Lee Ritenour, Chester Thompson—those are top L.A. studio musicians, and when I went in there I learned right away. I started playing a lot of stuff, and they were laying that thing down, and they said, “Wait a minute, that’s not the way to do it.” That’s when I learned if they want you to play more it’s better for them to tell you to play more than for you to overplay. Also, when I was in George’s band, I was mostly the one to keep time, because it was really consistent. If someone went even a taste too fast in the studio when we were doing things, or a hair too slow, I would notice it right away. It was hard, because a lot of drummers aren’t really that consistent. I’ve done things with Harvey Mason, and he’s real good. Then when Ricky Lawson came in the band, he was really good. I’ve played with some really good drummers, and it was easy for me to learn because they were all so good. I mean, they don’t have to play a whole lot of stuff, not unless they’re that “bad,”and that’s fine. But there are a lot of drummers who think the more they play the better they are. Trying to be like Billy or somebody like that. Instead of laying that thing, they’ll play and then lose the time, and play a whole bunch of rolls and a lot of fills in between things, where nothing really ever gets settled. And dynamics are important, when a drummer knows when to break things down and build things back up, go to a ride or stay on the hi-hat, whatever. That’s real important.
RT: In your current band, do you work out drum fills with the drummer?
SE: No, I let everybody play what they want to play, and if it’s not happening, then I’ll say something. But the drummer I have now, we work real good together, and what’s good is that he can play timbales too, so we trade oft”. When I play drums, he plays timbales. And the singer plays congas, and I’m trying to get everybody to play everything, trying to make the band very versatile. I really don’t work out parts. Right now we’re going to start working on a drum thing in the middle of the show, which we haven’t worked out yet. It’ll be something like what I used to do with my father. We’ll just break up some rhythm parts, and some people have to do certain things, and we’ll sing the chants or whatever. That will have to be worked out, but as far as fills and stuff, I don’t like working all that out. I don’t like it when somebody says, “Play this fill.” That drives me crazy, so I don’t want to do it to somebody else. Not unless it’s necessary. I’ll tell them a certain feeling that they should play, or that they shouldn’t play a fill so jazzy, or too commercial. It depends on what’s happening.
RT: So it’s more a matter of listening to each other.
SE: Yeah, listening and knowing what each other wants to hear, or what they think would work.
RT: Is there a lot of pressure on you as a bandleader at twenty-four?
SE: I’m being pressured just being a bandleader period. This is the first time I’ve ever done it. In my father’s and my band, he always took on all the responsibility of all the problems, calling people, and this and that. I’d just collect the money and play— that was it. He’d always say, “You got it easy. Wait till you get your own band.” Yeah pops, you’re right. It’s crazy. It’s hard for me to do this. I try to be real fair and understanding with everybody in the band, and while I’m doing that there’s also business being involved. I get really emotionally involved with this. I mean, this band is all I’m working for right now. I started it when I came home from the tour with Spyro Gyra. I had decided in Japan that I was going to get a band together. So I came home and decided to do a demo. And certain people said, “Well, I know somebody,” and that was how I got this whole band. As far as hand-picking, I didn’t go through all that mess about auditioning a bunch of people. And the guitar player and one of the keyboard players, it was like as soon as I saw them, just looking at them I knew—the same with the drummer. I said, “You don’t even have to audition. If you want the gig you can have it.” It was just something about them. And then before I heard them, I thought, “Am I doing the right thing, saying this before they even play?” But I was right. Sometimes I get that feeling. It’s really hard to be a bandleader and have demands and stuff. I don’t know how to tell people they’re doing things wrong. I’m always the one to take the backseat, and for me to be like that and sometimes put my foot down is really hard.
RT: It’s not your nature.
SE: Not at all. But it’s working out pretty good. Everybody is understanding, and we’re trying to make it a family first, before musicians, so that it does work out. Because if we get a contract we’re all going to be married to each other as long as we can stand each other. It’s really hard, and I want them to understand it. And because they’re all really young, and a lot of them haven’t had the experience of being on the road or of being in the studio, I’m trying to show them that it’s not really as easy as they think it is. I’m really glad that everybody is so dedicated. That’s why I got young musicians who haven’t had that experience, because I said I was going to get musicians who haven’t had that chance, and give them the chance. I’m hoping that they’re going to make it more than I do. Because I’ve been there, not even at the top. I’ve only gone so far, but just to be there was an experience, and I think they deserve it. They’re all really young and talented, so I really want to see them make it, and see what it’s really like. I could have gotten a bunch of musicians who play around here all the time, and always get the gigs—you know, certain musicians are always in that clique. But I said if it’s going to take me a year to do it, I’ll do it. And it’s taken me a year. I had to turn down gigs just so I could rehearse with the band, even though I needed the money. Struggling like everybody else. But I would rather work with my band. That’s just what I did, and it paid off.
RT: Are you actually in on the writing in your band?
SE: Oh yeah, the writing and arranging. Everybody is basically writing, and they’re trying to push me, because I don’t like to take the credit for a lot of things. And they’re trying to get me to get out there and sing, which I don’t like, but I guess I’ll have to do it. I have to try to like my voice. It’s going to work out; I just have to be confident.
RT: Is your band more of a funk band than a Latin band?
SE: Yeah, it’s commercial-type stuff like Shalimar, The Whispers, Earth, Wind, & Fire—the kind of stuff that would be played on the radio and sell a lot of records.
RT: How do you approach the funk differently than you would a Latin setting?
SE: It’s completely different. The feeling, for one thing, is completely different. The Latin thing—you have to feel that. There are a lot of people who are taught to play the Latin or Salsa stuff, but they play it real stiff. You have to know where to play the time. And the funk stuff is a lot different. You have to lay it in the pocket, and you can’t overplay. You have to play the right amount of stuff, and it can’t be too simple or else it’ll be boring. So it’s really hard. You have to make it commercial enough to understand it. You don’t want it to be too commercial that you don’t even like what you’re doing, but you want to sell records to make money. So it’s hard. That’s why I’m saying it took me this long, because I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in. I like the Salsa stuff, the Latin stuff, I like jazz, funk, fusion, everything. I like to play everything so much that it’s hard to pick one thing that I have to do in order to make it. I tried the Latin stuff with my father, we tried the fusion with Azteca, you know, so I’m going to try this. If this don’t work I guess I’ll get married and have kids, [laughs]
RT: Are more and more women getting into percussion?
SE: I don’t know. When I first started playing, I only knew two or three girl percussionists. One was Carol Steel, she was from around here. Then there’s Bobbye Hall, and somebody else, and that was it. And all of a sudden I had about ten or twelve students, and I started teaching a lot of women how to play. And it was taking too much of my time, even though I wanted to do it, because I started getting called for a lot of gigs. I heard of a lot of women wanting to learn. I had to turn down so many women. They got mesmerized—” God, a woman is playing percussion, and she doesn’t have to look masculine,” so I taught a lot of women. And there’s a lot of women who have been successful in Bay Area bands that are playing right now. But I don’t know if it’s a trend or not. I think that women aren’t afraid to play men’s instruments and still be feminine.
It’s really hard because there’s always talk about this and that because she’s playing a man’s instrument. It’s hard. But there are a lot of women now playing the bass guitar, saxophone, trombone…so that’s good. I’m glad. Because there are a lot of women who can play them just as good as a man could.