Gino Castillo's improvised journey from Quito to Charleston 

The Conga Line

When Gino Castilllo moved his family from New York City to Charleston three years ago, he based his decision on a false promise. A percussionist trained in the Cuban jazz tradition, he had been led to believe he had a serious gig lined up with a local musician. Upon arriving, he found out that the man who had hired him was woefully unprepared, and nobody else in the jazz scene had heard of him.

"When I came here, everything was a lie," Castillo says. "It's a guy who had a dream, you know? This guy had a really big dream, but he didn't realize I was a real, professional musician."

Today, Castillo is a respected fixture in Holy City jazz circles, with his own quartet and regular gigs at Voodoo on Sundays and Tabulli on Thursdays. It was a long road getting here, though.

Castillo, now 39 years old, says he first took an interest in the drums at age 5. As he grew up in Quito, Ecuador, and Havana, Cuba, his mother enrolled him in music conservatories, where teachers tried to lead him toward violin and piano. Castillo's grandfather bought him an expensive violin, and in an act of youthful rebellion, Castillo traded it with a classmate who was trying to get rid of a beaten-up old drumset. Then, after attending a concert of the Grammy-winning band Irakere, he found his real passion: Cuban jazz, aggressive and complex. "That's what I want to play for the rest of my life," he remembers saying. Shortly afterward, he quit the drumset to focus on the congas.

The Cuban jazz genre, formed at the meeting place of Dizzy Gillespie's bebop and Chano Pozo's Cuban rhythm, really grabbed a hold of Castillo when he started taking conga lessons from Irakere's legendary conguero, Oscar Váldes. Eventually, Castillo started playing professionally, recorded a few albums, and moved to New York for a year to try his hand in the crowded jazz scene.

When he first moved to the Charleston area, his practice space was a sweaty, non-air-conditioned garage at a house in Summerville, and he was having a hard time getting a band together. "When I came to Charleston, I was trying to build a quintet with a drummer and me playing congas," Castillo says. "But it was too hard because the only two guys that knew how to play the Cuban rhythms — Ron Wiltrout and Quentin Baxter — are always really busy."

So he did what jazz musicians do: He improvised. Since he couldn't find a suitable drummer, he jury-rigged a unique setup so he could play congas and the drumset at the same time. Over time, he was able to incorporate conga, timbale, cowbell, cajón, a cymbal, and a high hat into his signature kit, even rigging up a kick pedal to play the conga like a bass drum.

His next step was to begin assembling a band. He met pianist Trey Cooper at a gig, and the two hit it off after Castillo mentioned a Cuban jazz project in the works. "I'd been introduced to some of that music recently at the college, and I was interested in learning to play it," Cooper says. "This music was really cool, and it had a rich history, lots of great rhythms."

Castillo met bassist William Moore while the two were teaching a jazz clinic at a middle school in Goose Creek with Jazz Artists of Charleston. Then Cooper recommended his friend Michael Quinn to play the saxophone, and the quartet was complete. To hear the band tell it, Castillo was a patient instructor, teaching them complex polyrhythms and even teaching Quinn a new instrument: the shekere, a West African percussion instrument made of beads on a net around a dried gourd. "He's the best shekere player in town now, for sure," Castillo says.

The band practices in a more comfortable space now, an air conditioned room at the back of Castillo's house in West Ashley. They haven't cut any records yet, but they're saving money for recording equipment to record an album soon. "He had to teach us all to play before we could make a record," Moore says.

For their Sunday night gigs at Voodoo, salsa lessons begin at 7 p.m., and the band starts playing at 8. Castillo encourages audience members to come out and dance, not just sit and listen.

"You don't need to be a dancer to dance when we play," Castillo says. "If you feel the music, maybe you move your body, then you know how to dance. If you want to just stand and shake your body there with us, that's the most important thing."

A previous version of this story stated that Castillo grew up in Quito, Colombia. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, not Colombia. We regret the error and should probably take a look at a map every once in a while.


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