Tyina Steptoe

Before she became the world-class drummer known as Sheila E., sharing the stage with Carlos Santana, George Benson, and Prince, Sheila Escovedo learned about music from the sounds that emanated from her childhood home. Escovedo describes the music she heard in Oakland, California, in the 1960s as “cha-cha with a distinctive Motown flavor.” Her father, Latin jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo, often rehearsed with his band in the family’s cramped front room, while Sheila and her brothers played their favorite records by the Temptations or James Brown in their bedroom. Musicians such Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, and Lou Rawls frequently dropped by the house. “We must have driven the neighbors crazy,” Sheila E. recalls, “with the sounds of overlapping musical genres—a strong mix of clave and congas and a heart bass line blasting out of the open windows.”[1]

In the Escovedo household, no boundaries existed between rhythm and blues and Latin jazz, or black American and Latin, for that matter. Perhaps this is why Sheila E. later named her 1987 album Soul Salsa. Record stores and streaming services would likely categorize rhythm and blues and Latin jazz as distinct categories; however, each form exists because of the other, emerging from diasporic conversations between people from different regions and nations. Indeed, Escovedo’s own family blurred boundaries, socially and culturally. Her mother’s family, the Gardineres, were Creoles of color who had moved from New Orleans to the California Bay Area. Creoles of color from southern Louisiana often claimed a mixed heritage that included West African, French, and/or Iberian ancestry. They descended from free people of color who distinguished themselves from Louisiana’s enslaved black population before the Civil War. The Gardinere family seemed “compellingly exotic” to a young Pete Escovedo, who had spent his youth in both Mexico and California. The Gardineres had light skin and eyes and “spoke with gentle southern accents with a touch of French.”[2] As a teenager, Sheila Escovedo identified as black, but her notions of blackness were heavily informed by her Creole family’s racial hybridity and the rhythms of Latin drums played by her Mexican American father.

The Escovedos’ social and cultural world shows the complex, interrelated nature of blackness and Latinidad. These are not separate entities that increasingly mixed in the twentieth century; they are complex, tightly inter-coiled subjectivities. The music and people who moved in and out of the Escovedo household were not part of interracial exchanges; rather, their interactions could best be described as diasporic conversations.[3] The Escovedos of Oakland offer one West Coast version of that story, but different chapters have unfolded in diverse parts of the United States, such as Texas and New York. This essay examines versions of rhythm and blues that emerged in different regions in the twentieth century. Rhythm and blues music can help us understand some of the complexities of black and brown subjectivities and the ways that people of African descent understand and relate to one another within the United States.

The music played by the Escovedo family bore the imprint of diasporic conversations that had occurred since the turn of the twentieth century.[4] By the 1920s, overlapping migrations brought diverse people of African descent into contact with one another in different parts of urban America. Harlem, New York, offers one dynamic example. 224,000 people of African descent lived in Manhattan in 1930, and 25 percent of Harlem hailed from the Caribbean.[5] By the 1940s jazz that flowed from Harlem incorporated Latin American and black American rhythms. Those mergers began in the 1930s, when musicians such as classically trained Cuban Mario Bauzá moved to New York and learned to adapt to Harlem-style jazz with the help of African American drummer Chick Webb, who was one of the first people in New York to hire him. Along with his brother-in-law, Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo (best known as “Machito”), Bauzá became one of the first musicians to infuse jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Their music, he explained, sounded “like lemon meringue pie, jazz in the top and African-Cuban rhythms at the bottom.”[6] South Carolina-born John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie explored this sound after Bauzá introduced him to drummer Luciano “Chano” Pozo, who had just arrived to Harlem from Havana. Soon after Pozo joined Gillespie’s orchestra in 1947, he approached Dizzy with an idea for the song, “Manteca.” The band repeats an English language line at the beginning of the song: “I’ll never go back to Georgia.” That declaration undoubtedly struck a chord with other black southerners who had left the region to move north. By saying the line “I’ll never go back to Georgia” over clave rhythm, though, the song fuses together black southern and Afro-Cuban migration experiences.

These Harlem examples could best be described as intercultural rather than interracial, since diverse people of African descent made contact and combined musical traditions. Chano Pozo explained this relationship when describing how he and Gillespie communicated: “He doesn’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak English. But we both speak African.”[7] Intercultural exchange between different groups of people of African descent was a hallmark of jazz music in that era and laid the groundwork for diasporic conversations in rhythm and blues.

In New York City by the 1960s, African Americans and Latina/os had lived, worked, and played together for decades. Sonic fusions often had an economic incentive; appealing to both groups at the same time could bring financial success. When Gilberto Calderon, born to Puerto Rican parents in New York in 1931, formed a band in the 1950s and changed his name to “Joe Cuba,” he wanted to appeal to diverse audiences. The Joe Cuba Sextet had their first successful single in 1965 with “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back To Georgia),” a bilingual tune that riffed on the older Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo composition. The song was a local hit, though as band member Jimmy Sabater admitted, “none of us had ever been to Georgia.”[8] A year later the band crafted the song “Bang! Bang!” while trying to motivate a crowd of bored black New Yorkers attending a dance at the Palms Gardens Ballroom in midtown Manhattan. Sabater recalled, “It was a Black dance…de morenos, morenos de americanos de Harlem and stuff, you know, they had Black dances one night a week there and at some of the other spots.” No one was dancing, so Sabater asked bandleader Joe Cuba to play an idea he had. “Before I even got back to the timbal the people were out on the floor, going ‘bi-bi, hah! Bi-bi, hah!”[9]

The creation of “Bang! Bang!” marked the arrival of a new chapter in an older diasporic conversation—boogaloo. Musician Felipe Luciano described the sound as a fusion: “We were caught between rock ‘n’ roll and Latin. It married the two.”[10] Nearly echoing Mario Bauzá, boogaloo musician Johnny Colon asserted that he always began a composition with funk and rhythm and blues, but “then the rest of it is the Latin rhythm on the bottom.” As historian Juan Flores notes, “popular Latin bands thus found themselves creating a musical common ground by introducing the trappings of Black American culture into their performances and thus getting the Black audiences involved and onto the dance floor.”[11] The soul music of the 1960s especially bridged communities through what scholar Craig Werner calls the “gospel impulse.” Gospel impulse music transforms hardship into triumph; it has a redemptive quality that “breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation.” According to Werner, the gospel impulse was a three-step process: “1) acknowledging the burden; (2) bearing witness; (3) finding redemption.” By sharing these messages on a concert stage in front of an ecstatic audience, that sense of redemption transforms from personal to communal.[12] Musicians such as drummer Ray Barretto, whose parents had moved to New York from Puerto Rico in the 1930s, crafted gospel impulse songs that stressed unity. “I know I’m black and I’m white and I’m red, the colors of mankind flow through me,” he sings at the beginning of “Together,” a song from his 1970 album of the same name.[13]

For soul artists of the 1960s, the deliberate use of polyrhythm, vocalization, call and response, and functionality—all aspects of West African music—linked them across time and space. Use of call and response especially fosters the gospel impulse. When crowds participate in call and response, individuals transform into a group; in other words, “I” becomes “we,” as Werner argues. In the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “Bang! Bang!” singers use food to show commonalities between people on the dance floor. In English and Spanish, participants take turns shouting the names of pork dishes created in Puerto Rico and the black South:

Corn bread, hog maws and chitterlings

Corn bread

Comiendo cuchifrito

Corn bread, hog maws and chitterlings

Corn bread

Lechon, lechon[14]

The call and response between Puerto Ricans and black Americans emphasizes linguistic and culture difference—chitterlings and lechon are two different dishes found in two different places—but both culinary traditions use pork, which acts as a unifier between the groups.

When performers and their audience temporarily unify through shared musical sensibilities, they often incorporate vocalization, the act of chanting or singing sounds that don’t necessarily form words. On the night his band first played “Bang, Bang,” Joe Cuba said, “Suddenly the audience began to dance side-to-side like a wave-type dance, and began to chant ‘she-free, she-free,’ sort of like an African tribal chant.”[15] By singing vocalized phrases in a call and response pattern, diverse people forged temporary communities out of multiethnic crowds of people enjoying the same music.

But these explorations of rhythm and blues were not limited to urban spaces. While urban contact fostered some of the first iterations of diasporic conversation, South Texas musicians offer a rural chapter to that story. In the late 1950s, a young Texan named Baldemar Garza Huerta helped reinterpret rhythm and blues. Huerta was born in San Benito, a small town near the Mexican border, in 1937. After a brief stint in the military, he returned to Texas while in his early twenties and focused on his first love—music. In bars and nightclubs scattered across Texas and Louisiana, Huerta developed a stage persona and a musical repertoire that bridged the English-language music heard on the radio and the ballads played by his Mexican-born father and Mexican American mother. His fans acknowledged this blend of cultures by calling him “El Bebop Kid.” In around 1957, he officially changed his name to Freddy Fender, a move inspired by his favorite guitar. His early success came from making Spanish versions of rhythm and blues songs. The 1961 album Interpreta el Rock features a cover of Ray Charles’s “What I Say” called “Vamos a Bailar,” as well as a remake of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” titled “Bailando el Rock & Roll.” He also re-imagined the old blues song “See See Rider” as an up-tempo dance song he named “Si Si Rider.”[16] Fender’s early career was cut short in 1961, however, after an arrest in Louisiana at the age of 23 for marijuana possession. He received a five-year sentence at Angola State Penitentiary.[17]

In Texas cotton country, especially in the central and south parts of the state, ethnic Mexican and black workers often toiled in the same fields. For first-generation Mexican Americans such as the man who came to be known as Little Joe, the sound of black cotton pickers singing the blues was perhaps the first English-language music they heard. José María De León Hernández lived in an environment where African American and ethnic Mexican music flowed from the sharecroppers’ cabins. His father was a farm laborer, but when he landed in prison, young José dropped out of school in the 7th grade to help his family on the farm. During that time he would have been exposed to a mixture of musical styles. Musicians played conjunto at roadside cantinas and festivals, while big band orquesta Tejana, the music of middle-class Tejanos, frequently played on Spanish-language radio stations. But the sounds of black Texans also seeped into the Hernández household. Tejano music archivist Ramon Hernández describes a typical scene from central Texas cotton country: “Out in the fields they were picking cotton, a whole row of black people, a whole row of Mexican Americans, and here you have this guy singing rancheras and this guy’s over here singing the blues, you know. So that was his influences.” José Hernández especially veered toward the blues in his early years. His first band was Little Joe and the Latinaires, a rhythm and blues outfit that included young black American men as well as Mexican Americans. The men cultivated a similar visual aesthetic that included matching tuxedos and slicked-back pompadours.[18]

Urban Texans also participated in this conversation. San Antonio’s West Side Sound explored links between Mexican Americans and their black neighbors. The most popular rhythm and blues song from Houston in the 1960s, Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up,” incorporates the sounds of horns from Mexican American orquesta music.[19] The sounds of Texas soul, then, were parts of a dialogue between African Americans and Mexican Americans.

By the 1970s diasporic conversations influenced multiple offshoots of rhythm and blues. Guitarist Chuck Brown played with a salsa band called Los Latinos before helping establish go-go as Washington, D.C.’s most beloved genre.[20] Akron, Ohio’s Fred Lewis, who played percussion for the funk band Lakeside, drew inspiration from Afro-Latin drumming. One band mate described Lewis as being “like a Black Latin guy, because he was into the Latin culture.”[21] Farther west in California the band WAR recorded songs such as “Lowrider” and “Cisco Kid” that reflected the racial dynamic of their mixed Los Angeles neighborhoods. As historian Gaye Theresa Johnson asserts, WAR’s music “was created from the fabric of South and East Los Angeles’s Black-Brown aural integration.”[22] On the jazz scene, George Duke frequently employed Latina/o percussionists. Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena played bongos, congas, and other percussion instruments on 1977’s Reach for It. And in the late 1970s, a young Californian who went by the stage name Sheila E. was playing drums in Duke’s band. Through the proliferation of Latin drumming, rhythm and blues of the 1970s was a diasporic conversation.

An Afro-wearing conga player, Sheila E. had developed a visual and sonic aesthetic that blended the styles of the Bay Area: “soul sister, hippie, conguera, and Bay Area fashionista.”[23] By this point, she had already made a name for herself as a percussionist, playing with Duke, Herbie Hancock, and even contributing percussion to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” (though she wasn’t credited). Pretty soon she had joined forces with the young Minneapolis native who called himself Prince. Together Sheila E. and Prince built a sound that brought diasporic conversations into the 1980s. In their 1985 collaboration “Holly Rock,” Escovedo’s Latin-jazz tinged drums introduce the song, while Prince borrows from James Brown, trading high-energy call-and-response phrases with an audience while directing a funk band. The result is a synthesis of funk, salsa, and rap.[24]

Escovedo transformed Prince’s music and helped shape 1980s rhythm and blues. She no longer worked as Prince’s director by the late eighties, but Prince continued to employ Latina/o instrumentalists such as Brazilian-born Renato Neto, who joined the New Power Generation as a percussionist. “Indigo Nights,” recorded live in London in 2007, especially bears Neto’s imprint. Prince implores, “Gimme some salsa on the piano,” and Neto obliges.[25] These songs illuminate how Latin jazz and rhythm and blues were not separate entities, but part of a larger musical conversation that emerged from decades-old interactions.

While this essay has focused on rhythm and blues, diasporic conversations are not limited to that genre. Styles such as freestyle and hip hop have similar roots. In the 2017 pop hit, “Havana,” Cuban/Mexican Camila Cabello collaborates with two black southerners—Virginia-born producer Pharrell Williams and Georgia-born rapper Young Thug. When Cabello sings about Havana and East Atlanta in the chorus, she reminds us that, throughout the twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries, popular music has illuminated a larger history of interplay between black Americans and Latina/os.


TYINA STEPTOE is a historian of race, gender, and popular culture in the United States. Her book, Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City (2016), has received several awards, including the Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book (North American) from the Urban History Association and the W. Turrentine Jackson Book Prize from the Western History Association. Her other writing has appeared in publications such as the American Quarterly, Journal of African American History, Journal of the West, and the Oxford American.


[1] Sheila E., The Beat of My Own Drum: A Memoir (2014), 49.

[2] Sheila E., The Beat of My Own Drum, 13.

[3] My notion of diasporic conversations builds on the work of scholars who have theorized interactions between African Americans and Latina/os. See Marco Cervantes, “Squeezebox Poetics: Locating Afromestizaje in Esteban Jordan’s Texas Conjunto Performance,” American Quarterly, 65 (Dec. 2013), 853–76, and Frank Andre Guridy, Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (2010).

[4] Historian Gaye Theresa Johnson argues that Mexican-born music teachers who instructed Creole of color students helped influence the development of New Orleans jazz in the early twentieth century. In his history of jazz in New Orleans, Thomas Brothers illuminates the influence of black migrants from the Mississippi Delta. See Gaye Theresa Johnson, “‘Sobre Las Olas,’: A Mexican Genesis in Borderlands Jazz and the Legacy for Ethnic Studies,” Comparative American Studies, 6 (Sept. 2008), 225–40; and Thomas Brothers, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2007).

[5] Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (1996), 4.

[6] Latin Music USA, “Bridges,” DVD, directed by Pamela A. Aguilar and Daniel McCabe (PBS 2009), PBS.org, “Machito & Mario Bauza,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/latinmusicusa/legends/machito-mario-bauza/, accessed December 20, 2018. On Bauzá and connections between music in Harlem and Havana, see Frank Guridy, “Feeling Diaspora in Harlem and Havana,” Social Text, 27 (Spring 2009), 122–24.

[7] David García, “‘We Both Speak African’: A Dialogic Study of Afro-Cuban Jazz,” Journal of the Society of American Music, 5 (May 2011), 195–233.

[8] Juan Flores, From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000), 87.

[9] Juan Flores, “Boogaloo and Latin Soul,” in The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (2010), 199–202.

[10] Felipe Luciano quoted in Latin Music USA, “Bridges.”

[11] Juan Flores, “Boogaloo and Latin Soul,” 200–1; Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, Music, Race & the Soul of America (2006), 28.

[12] Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, 28.

[13] Ray Barretto, “Together,” Together, Fania Records, 1970.

[14] Joe Cuba Sextet, “Bang! Bang!” Tico Records, 1966.

[15] Flores, “Boogaloo and Latin Soul,” 199.

[16] Freddy Fender, Interpreta El Rock, Arhoolie Records, 2003.

[17] Interview with Freddy Fender, folder 54, box 96-384, Huey Meaux Papers, 1940–1994, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin; Latin Music USA, “The Chicano Wave,” DVD, directed by Pamela A. Aguilar and Daniel McCabe (PBS 2009).

[18] Manual Peña, Música Tejana: The Cultural Economy of Artistic Transformation (1999), 152–53; Latin Music USA, “The Chicano Wave.”

[19] See Tyina L. Steptoe, Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City (2015).

[20] See Natalie Hopkinson, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (2012).

[21] Unsung, “Lakeside,” written by Rob Blumenstein, TV One, October 28, 2015.

[22] Gaye Theresa Johnson, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (2013), 112.

[23] Sheila E, The Beat of My Own Drum, 94.

[24] Sheila E, “Holly Rock,” Krush Groove: Music from the Motion Picture, Warner Bros., 1985.

[25] Prince, “Indigo Nights,” Indigo Nights, NPG, 2008.