Multi-instrumentalist Gino Castillo is synonymous with Holy City Latin music after 12 years leading Latin-jazz, salsa and traditional Cuban ensembles | Photo by Ruta Smith

Local vocalist/percussionist Gino Castillo remembers his grandmother listening to Cuban boleros on the radio and his grandfather spinning vinyls of classic composers Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Tchaikovsky while he was growing up in Quito, Ecuador. 

But it was watching a black and white video of the leather-clad, long-haired Ecuadorian ’80s pop rock group Barro that awakened his musical curiosity at 5 years old. 

“One of the shots went to the drummer, and he started playing. I have this memory like it was yesterday watching that video and saying, ‘I want to be that guy,’” Castillo told City Paper

After that epiphany, Castillo spent his formative years in conservatory training for piano and violin before he made an unruly redirection to drumming on an old kit he refurbished. Finally in 1998, he chose the congas with a resolved focus on Latin percussion. 

He went on to study the congas under Afro-Cuban jazz group Irakere’s conguero Oscar Váldes in Havana, then toured as percussionist with rock band Cruks en Karnak back in Ecuador. He also taught percussion in Berklee College of Music’s Ecuadorian branch and the George Gershwin Conservatory’s Latin percussion center in Quito. 

After a stint of recording and touring in New York City’s Latin-jazz scene as the Gino Castillo Quartet, Castillo moved to Charleston in 2010. He started at zero after the music opportunity he relocated to Charleston for fell through.

By early 2011, local jazz icons Jack McCray and Leah Suárez welcomed Castillo into the Charleston Jazz Orchestra family. Castillo further connected with Charleston’s small Latin jazz community when he met multi-instrumentalist Steven Sandifer of Dangermuffin.

“That was the beginning,” Castillo said. “While I had a little niche, it wasn’t enough to keep going. So I moved a little bit into salsa, and then I had another group of people. I stayed in between for a while, kind of ‘salsa-jazz’ — that’s what I did for a while trying to build [a Latin music scene]. And I never stopped. I’m still doing it.”

Today, Castillo plays salsa music in Gino Castillo & the Cuban Cowboys, Latin jazz in the Gino Castillo Quartet and traditional Cuban music in Buena Vista Legacy Band. 

Legacy Band was born in 2019 when Charleston Music Hall director Charles Carmody enlisted Castillo for a filmed showcase performance in tribute to Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Club. And while the Covid-related shutdown stalled additional projects, Castillo knew he would continue Legacy Band one day. Currently, the group is working on an album in collaboration with artists in Charleston, New York, Cuba and Venezuela. 

Alongside the Charleston Jazz ensemble, the Legacy Band will take to the stage Sept. 17 at the Music Hall during the orchestra’s Cuban Carnival concert. Other performers in the local lineup include pianist Abdiel Iriarte, percussionist Ron Wiltrout and upright bassist Jake Holwegner. Charleston’s own Cuban vocalist/pianist Iliana Rose and native vocalist/trumpeter Charlton Singleton will guest star. 

Cuban Carnival will feature two internationally acclaimed Cuban artists, superstar vocalist and renowned Cuban tres player Yusa and Latin Grammy-nominated percussionist Calixto Oviedo. Regional Cuban artists trumpeter Mark Rapp and guitarist Jorge Garcia will also grace the stage. 

But as far as Castillo’s other projects go, he said the Buena Vista Legacy Band’s yet-to-be-named album is expected to drop later this year.

The upcoming album includes reworked classic Cuban songs, like the track, “Cómo Fue,” on which Singleton is featured. Castillo translated a portion of the Spanish lyrics into English, arranging a bilingual version on which both he and Singleton sing. The same goes for the old 1947 Cuban tune “Quizás Quizás Quizás,” on which Rose sings with Castillo. Singleton will also sing on the cha-cha version of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to The Moon.” 

Castillo’s original songs on the new album are love songs. One track, “Pardona,” which he wrote 15 years ago, has been rearranged, yet still retains an old-school, horn-driven sound. The other track he wrote about five years ago, “No Me Preguntes Por Qué,” is an upbeat dance song. 

“The first one is a bolero,” he said, “super slow, very romantic. And the other one is more fun — telling you, ‘Don’t ask me why I love you so much, just come here and give me a kiss.’ ”

Cuban Carnival debuts Sept. 17 at Charleston Music Hall with performances at 5 and 8 p.m. Tickets are available at charlestonjazz.com.


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