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Sheila E Wows Smithsonian Crowd

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/22/2013, 10:30 p.m.
Dr. Johnnetta Cole embraces Sheila E. on May 16 at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Northwest. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

Sheila E's life is a blur, she said, with tours, tour dates, an upcoming album, autobiography – and a movie in the works.

One of the few indications that she's slowing down, she joked, can be found in some of the selections on her upcoming album which have a slower tempo than her usual musical fare.

The acclaimed drummer, singer and percussionist spoke of her continued excitement at doing what she loves but noted the price she's paid.

"I'm 56 this year and it does take a toll. I've had procedures done on my arm, elbow and wrist. But I love what I do and when I go on stage, I get crazy," she said with a laugh.

Born Sheila Escovedo in Oakland, Calif., Sheila E was in town May 16 to perform at a tribute concert celebrating the life of the late Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go. She recalled meeting Brown years ago, said she was a huge admirer, but added that she'd never gotten a chance to play with him.

"I'm a fan of his and his great music," she said. "It will be high-energy even though I didn't bring my full band with me tonight."

Sheila E stopped by the Smithsonian Museum of African Art Thursday afternoon to spend some time with youngsters from Studio Africa, an educational program offered by the museum to teach the next generation about African history, culture and art. The Farafina Kan Youth Troupe performed for her and she treated the crowd of several dozen drawn to the alcove of the museum to a brief flurry of drumming with the young men.

She took off her rings, watch and bracelet as she was invited to play with the drummers and they gave visitors a high-powered and energetic musical performance.

"If I break a nail before tonight!" she warned in mock ire.

Smithsonian Director Johnnetta Cole was effusive.

"No words, no words. Just deep feelings from what we all just experienced," she said, shaking her head. "This is what we here at the museum work so hard to promote. The creativity, the vibrancy, the joy of African and African Diaspora Arts."

Cole's friend Camille Cosby agreed.

"Well first of all, isn't it appropriate to have these wonderful people play and Sheila E join them?" asked Cosby, wife of actor and comedian Bill Cosby and herself a noted philanthropist. "It was wonderful. Wonderful proof of the commonality we share throughout the Diaspora."

Sheila E's demeanor softened more as she talked about young people.

"Youth are very important to me," said Escovedo, daughter of legendary Latin Jazz percussionist Peter Escovedo. "I want to encourage kids. It's never too late. We need to start now, not wait. I want them to play from the heart and know that even in playing, there's no right or wrong way to do anything."

Escovedo, who was sexually abused by a babysitter when she was five, said she wanted to provide a safe haven for children around the country who are discarded or forgotten. She uses music and art as therapy through her own Elevate Hope Foundation, headquartered in California. There, children with a range of challenges learn to express themselves and heal.