Sheila E. & Dionne Farris step to the beat of their own drums
What’s great about Berklee’s BeanTown Jazz Festival, (coming up this Saturday, September 27, 12 noon – 6 p.m.), is that it brings together a community of people from diverse backgrounds who have a shared love of music. With a lineup of artists representing Brazil, Chile, Italy, Japan, and the United States, it’s no wonder then, that this year’s theme is “The Global Ambassador.”
Two artists who share a love and passion for music are world-renowned drummer and percussionist, Sheila E. and Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, Dionne Farris, who are both scheduled to perform at the annual music festival.
Sheila E., the daughter of legendary percussionist Pete Escovedo and goddaughter of Latin star Tito Puente, first picked up drum sticks at the age of three. At the age of five, the music prodigy made her concert debut on the congas at the former Sands Ballroom in Oakland, when her father invited her on stage to play a solo in front of an audience of 3,000.
In her memoir, The Beat of My Own Drum, (released earlier this month), Sheila recounts how she played with her dad, “Pops,” all the time at home, even “stepping up to his congas (with the help of a chair), and hammering out a rhythm with my tiny hands.”
“Even when he wasn’t around, I’d create music from anything — beating on pots and pans, a window, a wall, a table or my chest,” she recalls.
Influenced by the sounds of Latin jazz and Motown all around her, Sheila recalls how musicians were always coming in and out of her family’s home, jamming with her dad who played the congas, bongos, and timbales. In her autobiography, she describes how “my father’s conga playing touched me somewhere deep within my soul.” Her father would often tell her that before she was born she would “kick in time to the percussion inside her mom’s belly.”
Sheila, whose sole passion was music, made the decision to quit school in the tenth grade to join her dad’s band, Azteca. Despite her parents’ pleas, they realized that music was her life and gave in to her decision.
Dionne Farris, who was raised in Bordentown, New Jersey, was introduced to music at a very young age by her parents. Named after their favorite singer, Dionne Warwick, she sang in church and in a regional children’s choir beginning in the third grade. She was also enrolled in various dance classes from ballet and jazz to tap and toe, but came to back music in her early teens.
The singer/songwriter who always wanted to sing came to national prominence as the vocalist behind Arrested Development’s 1992 hit song Tennessee. Once she departed the group, Farris was able to fully realize her goal of being a solo artist.
“I consciously said to myself that I wanted to create music that would provoke thought,” she said in a recent phone interview.
And she did exactly that with her 1994 debut album Wild Seed-Wild Flower. It was released to critical acclaim and yielded the top 5 Grammy nominated hit, I Know. She followed her album with a string of singles for the movie soundtracks of Ghosts of Mississippi, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, the First Wives Club, and Love Jones.
Celebrating 40 years in the music industry this year, Sheila E. has paved her own path in an industry known to be tough on female artists and musicians. In a recent phone interview, she was asked how she’s been able to retain artistic control and integrity of her work. She mentions that when she was performing in Japan with Terri Lyne Carrington, Lalah Hathaway, and Esperanza Spalding, she asked them, ‘Has it been any easier for you as women in this business?’ and they all burst into laughter,’ because they’re all still dealing with the same issues.
Like Carrington, Hathaway and Spaulding, Sheila E. has retained her musical integrity, to some extent at the expense of greater commercial success. And she says she’s fine with that.
“I’m not going to change who I am for publicity purposes,” Sheila says. “I like who I am and I’m comfortable with who I am. I’m sharing who I am. I’m not here to compete. It’s not how people accept me or not. I’m going to be me.”
Similar to Sheila E., Dionne Farris has also defied being pigeon-holed by taking charge of her career. She’s approached the industry by just being herself.
“I like music. I wanted to just sing. It’s what I always wanted to do,” she says.
Farris has gone the independent route in producing and distributing her music. She’s been able to collaborate with musicians that she’s chosen. She worked with trumpeter Russell Gunn on the album Dionne Get Your Gunn.
“Working with Russell has opened my jazz chops,” she says.
Her most recent project is the album, Dionne Dionne, with guitarist Charlie Hunter. The album reimagines some of the best pop standards of the modern era by Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Farris has also established her own record label, Free & Clear Records, where she’s the sole artist on the label, for now. She eventually wants to work and produce other artists but in the meantime, she says, she wants to establish herself first as a business person.
Much has changed and evolved in the music industry since Sheila E. first joined her dad’s band at the age of 15. To performers of today, Sheila’s advice is to be responsible for the business end of your career. She says you’ve got to “learn about the business and the contracts” and that it’s important to “educate yourself, to empower you.”
Farris would agree. When she first started out, the advice that she would have liked to receive would have been about understanding publishing, songwriting, and copywriting. “The real business of things,” she says.
But at this stage in her life, Farris is in a good place.
“I’m excited about all the possibilities in my life,” she says.
Farris is enthusiastic about what’s ahead and says she is “creating her own place” and isn’t afraid to “go for it” anymore.
For her performance this Saturday at the BeanTown Jazz Festival, Farris is teaming up with the Russell Gunn Quartet and performing music from Dionne Get Your Gunn along with many of her classic songs; Sheila E. will be backed by a Berklee student band.
“I’m blessed that they’re allowing me to come into their world,” Sheila E. says of the students. “I will mentor and show them things that might be able to help them. I’m hoping that people will come out and enjoy the day. Musically, I want to be a part of what they’re doing. It’s not about me.”
For a schedule of events, visit www.beantownjazz.com.