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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

"The breakdown for kids is communication. Often, they don't know how to express themselves," she said.

The foundation provides the means for young people to articulate their feelings, and music is the conduit, she said.

Despite her years in the business, Sheila E said she learns every time she hears someone perform and she spoke of Africa's considerable cultural and musical sway.

"The influence of African beats, djembe drums – everything kind of comes from Africa," she said. "[This is] the heartbeat of the drums, [and] people communicating from village-to-village. I bought instruments from Brazil, Cuba, Africa. We're playing their instruments. Paul Simon and a lot of artists use African instruments."

"It's been a huge influence on me, my life and my singing."

Sheila E said she had other plans for her life when she was a child.

"I didn't know that music would be my purpose," she said. "I wanted to be the first little girl on the moon and I wanted to win a gold medal in track and field. But I began playing at 15 and that was it. God puts you in a place very different from what you expected."

When she began playing, she said, there were few women percussionists.

"Growing up it was a little bit challenging because I was one of the few female percussion players," she said. "I wasn't aware of the low numbers. I thought playing was the norm. I'd go to my friends' homes and they didn't play because girls didn't do that ... I've heard girls say this is a man's instrument but music isn't attached to gender. It's a dialogue, a conversation, a way to communicate."

Escovedo said when she started performing and recording with other artists, many of them hadn't heard of her.

"They tried to talk bad, to disrespect me and I spoke to my dad about it. He told me to be prepared and walk in with confidence," she said. "It has been a challenge but the music industry has changed. Women have always had to prove themselves more than men. I don't have to prove myself. It's just about the music."

Sheila E, an Emmy and Grammy nominee, who has performed with the likes of Prince, Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie and her father, said she's been busy in the studio wrapping up her album, which will feature funk, jazz and some country tunes. She worked on Chaka Khan's latest album and told her they needed to trade so Khan will be on hers. In between tours, Escovedo is immersed in her autobiography, "Pain to Purpose," and said a movie is also in the works.

When she's performing, Escovedo said she enjoys the give-and-take during her shows.

"Interacting with the audience is the best part for me. I like to give but also to get. I want the audience to know that I'm approachable. I don't want them to think they can't touch me. To me, the stage is like my living room, or my home, and when you come over to my house, I have to be a hostess and invite you in so that we can have a great time," she said.