She’s been an integral part of superstar bands, forged her own path as a successful solo artist and songwriter, and handled more genres than a backline kit in a busy L.A. nightclub. Now, on her latest album, Iconic: Message 4 America, Sheila E. takes on the political climate of the nation with a focused tour through music history. Setting the perfect tone for this 15-song collection of covers is the U.S. national anthem, sung over a triplet swing and funky rhythm guitar lick, with an organ humming the chords in the last half of the tune. It’s a family affair—Juan and Pete Escovedo handle the congas, with percussion by Peter Michael Escovedo.

Iconic features Sheila on drums and vocals, of course, with plenty of guests: Beatles tunes include Ringo Starr, a Sly & The Family Stone song features Freddie Stone, a James Brown medley features Bootsy Collins—you get the picture. We caught up with the iconic drummer, percussionist, and singer about the message behind the music and how growing up around music legends shaped her own style.

Many of the songs on Iconic were driven by political change. Do you find that you went back to those songs because they’ve provided a certain comfort or healing?

Not necessarily. A couple years ago I put a folder together called Politically Correct. I knew that it would probably take me a year to write the album. Lyrically, I’m saying the things that I’d like to say and hadn’t spoken about it in a while. That was due to all the killings of young people, the police shootings, kids shooting each other, and the turmoil with youth and people of color. I knew I was going to speak about that, but things were happening so fast that I thought, Let’s talk to my team. Let’s take some songs that I grew up listening to that are still relevant.

There are a lot of songs, and we had a plethora of options to choose from—especially growing up at that time, with my dad and Azteca, the band he used to have with his brothers. I went back to find the ones that would work for the record, to put it out with what it meant to me, and be relevant now.

I listened to “Inner City Blues/Trouble Man” and A-B’ed your version with Marvin Gaye’s original. The relaxed conga beat at the beginning of both the original “Inner City Blues” and your version was so beautiful to hear back-to-back. Although it has your signature on it, the production value and the arrangements were spot-on.

When I first learned congas, “What’s Going On” was out, and if you wanted to play percussion, that was one of the conga beats you had to know. To be able to play that and to play with Marvin on his last tour . . . it’s one of my favorite beats. It’s what that song needs, and it sticks out when you hear it. It’s just like, Wow, that’s cool. It makes sense.

Your cover of “Come Together” has a real energy behind it and a timeless urgency to unite.

At first, I played drums, but I knew I wanted Ringo to play. I knew I wanted a different element, like I did with “Inner City Blues” by adding “Trouble Man.” I wanted to do the same with “Come Together” and add another Beatles song, “Revolution.” I also did this with Prince’s “America” by adding another song, “Free.” That was the point in trying to do one song and add the other—just to show they’re both still relevant.

When you did the albums with Prince—Around The World In A Day, Sign O’ The Times, Madhouse, and other side projects—how involved were you in terms of the percussion parts? On a song like “U Got The Look,” it seems like Prince gave you carte blanche. How did you write and work with him as a drummer?

It’s two different things as a drummer and as a percussionist, but everything you hear me play is all me. He loved what I played. He was like, “Bring it on!” I’d give him more than he asked for and we’d work it out. Sometimes he’d use it all or put it on the extended version. 

Sign O’ The Times was kind of cool because I wanted to play drums and he said, “Well, let’s do it.” He expanded the Revolution—I brought half of my band, he brought half of his. I was his musical director during that time. We recorded everything together in the studio for that record too, but I was the only one who knew where everything was. It wasn’t like we were recording digitally. We had tapes, 24 tracks. If we played them together it was 48, barely. In doing so, playing all the percussion and different samples and sounds that we had, I knew where they were because I was in the studio with him.

Your musical pedigree and lineage is one-of-a-kind and beyond impressive. Your father, Peter, and his brothers are world-class percussionists and founding members of Santana, and your godfather is Tito Puente, the prime mover of Latin percussion.

We are one of maybe two families that still play together and play percussion. That’s pretty rare, especially with my dad being the age that he is now and still performing. It’s a miracle in itself.

You began as a child performer, playing with your family at age five. Obviously, your father saw and nurtured your natural talent. Can you touch on your evolution as a child performer?

My dad was somewhat of a teacher and my mentor. To be able to watch and hear him every single day, I absorbed that like a sponge. Subconsciously, when you’re around it, you pick things up. Watching him practicing, the jam sessions at the house, bands coming over . . . I mean, how awesome is that? Once a week, to be able to hear a live band in your living room—being around music constantly and part of a huge family—is pretty special.

Did you start congas and timbales and then move to drum set? Or did you learn all these instruments together at the same time?

No. It was mostly congas first—congas for a very long time. Then at 15 I borrowed my cousin’s drum set to audition for a local band, even though I’d never played drums before. I asked him to show me how to set up drums, to make sure I looked like I knew what I was doing. I auditioned for the band, which was a knock-off of a Santana band with young kids my age, and I got the gig right away. I played drums for a very short time—another drummer came to town with a PA, and we knew we’d get better gigs bringing in our own gear—and then I switched back to congas.

We would definitely be the highlight of the family parties, which were basically “Showtime.” We did dance routines, mimicking James Brown, The Temptations, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder—it didn’t matter who it was. We would emulate every Motown artist and dance, and then we would play salsa music. My grandpa, being Hispanic, Mexican, and Indian, spoke English a lot, but he also loved to speak Spanish to his kids, and he would sing to us in Spanish. So then we had the mariachi music too.

We have so many types of music in our household, from Mexican to Tex-Mex, salsa, Latin jazz, Motown, James Brown, and R&B. Then you’ve got fusion. It was just incredible. My dad told me at nine years old that I should go and learn how to play violin, so here comes classical music. That upbringing, with different genres of music, made me the artist that I am. If it weren’t for my dad bringing in all types of music, I wouldn’t continue to flourish and be able to fit in any situation, to play with any artist in any genre of music.

There are genres of music from villages and from countries I don’t know, each with different time signatures and specific things that need to be played. I don’t know everything. But I know that what I grew up playing with the musicians that were around me, and being raised in the Bay Area—a place where the heartbeat was music—the cultural part of it was music, food, and family. Growing up around all these musicians and artists, man, how could I not pick that up?

You learned through osmosis. But did you get gigs with people like George Duke, Lionel Richie, and Marvin Gaye because you were in that scene and your talent was exposed to these folks? Or did your dad help propel you to make these relationships?

It definitely started with Billy Cobham seeing my dad at a nightclub when I wasn’t even old enough to be there. Billy introduced us to George Duke, who was performing at the Kool Jazz Festival, and so were we. George was multitalented in different genres too—he played funk, R&B, Brazilian jazz, Latin jazz, whatever. We were on these festivals with LTD, Kool & The Gang, Ashford & Simpson, George Benson, all these different R&B artists, so I was exposed to that side of it.

Every time I played somewhere, someone was there. It was word of mouth. Besides, when people knew that my dad and I had an album out, it just continued to flourish. I was playing with my dad and Azteca at the time, and we were also on the same bill with Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and a couple of other big artists. I play differently with my dad than I would with George Duke or whomever. It started back when we were playing with Billy Cobham.

You and your father released albums together?

Yes. Billy Cobham produced two albums for us: Solo Two and Happy Together on Fantasy Records.

Tell me more about this period with Billy Cobham.

When Billy produced our first record, I was 16 or 17. Watching his protocol, watching what he had to do to warm up every day, I thought, Man, that’s crazy to have to do all that. That’s why he is so amazing.

His technique of warm-ups for hours, his rolls, singles, doubles, triples, quads, and the way he had a conversation with his snare drum with his back to the wall—it was crazy. The way he rolled, the way his toms were set up, the sticks he used, how he tuned his drums, his double-kick pedal—I learned by watching him. That’s how it all started. I was like, This guy is incredible. Watching him play and playing with him, I learned a lot
and then applied some of that.

I always loved playing funk and Latin jazz with my family and then adding the cowbell on the kick drum so that I can play all the cowbell parts with my dad. Every time I play with someone, even to this day, I continue to be a student. I love learning,
and I feel that I get better with time. I love playing and performing. I sometimes feel like I don’t do it enough because there’s so much work behind the scenes to even get a show off the ground, do shows on weekends, or get a tour together.

There are many business aspects to maintaining a career in this industry. There’s a lot of talking, discussing, meetings, and things like that. I love it when we get in a groove and a pocket where we are just playing every day, and it’s just pretty awesome.