Musician Spotlight: Gino Castillo’s Inspiring Story

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Musician Spotlight: Gino Castillo’s Story

CHARLESTON, SC – Gino Castillo is a renowned Latin jazz musician and recording artist based in Charleston, SC. Born in Ecuador, and trained musically in Cuba, he brings authenticity and technicality to every performance.

Charleston Jazz’s marketing director, Lacy Miller, had the opportunity to chat with Gino and learn his story. Watch the video interview, or read the transcript below.


“The Charleston music scene is the best in the world”
-Gino Castillo, Percussionist


Watch the Interview with Gino Castillo


See Gino Castillo perform!

September 14th, 2024


Charleston Jazz Orchestra with Gino Castillo and Yusa

5:00 PM + 8:00 PM

Charleston Music Hall

Tickets: Click Here


Read the Interview Transcript


I have the great privilege today of speaking with one of Charleston’s fabulous musician legends. This is Mr. Gino Castillo. Thank you, Gino, for being here.

Thank you for having me.

You are a very familiar face in Charleston. Where are you from originally?

I was born in Ecuador.

Oh, okay.

Yeah, I was born in Quito, Ecuador.

Is that what inspired you? The sounds that you heard in music there?

Well, music, yes, because my house was very musical. But my grandfather was a big fan of the classics. So, at lunchtime, he would walk in, and we were all waiting for him to have lunch, and he would blast classical music. It was almost impossible to have a conversation, but we were happy about that. He would walk in, and one day it would be Bach, and another day it would be Chopin, whatever his mood was. That was one of the biggest influences I had. My grandma used to clean the house, listening to music and singing. Oh, and my biggest memory is of her doing her chores, singing along with the little cassette player that she had with Cuban boleros. That’s a big memory that I have.

So both of your grandparents were big musical influences for you?


So you were influenced by your family. You have spread the music to your family. What brought you to Charleston? How long have you been part of the scene here?

I moved to Charleston in 2010 from New York. I was in New York first, but I did a lot before I went. I was a kid in Ecuador, then I moved to Cuba, and I kind of grew up in Cuba. Then I moved back to Ecuador. Cuba gave me the music that I play. I was raised musically as a Cuban. In my house, we used to listen to classical music and Cuban boleros. Then I moved to Cuba, and everything was Cuban music.

And that inspired your Gino Castillo & the Cuban Cowboys?

That changed my life. My trip to Cuba was very long. It was during the period of time when you are a teenager changing, and without knowing, suddenly I was one more Cuban.

Music has really opened a lot of doors for you. You have your own musical group. Tell us about some of the highlights of your musical career.

Well, I spent 9 years being a top percussionist for pop music. But at some point, I thought that I wanted to do my own stuff. So, I started a jazz band, a Latin jazz band, with the teachers in Quito. Quito has one of the three branches that Berklee College of Music has, and I was teaching there. So I started a band with all the teachers, and it was a fantastic band. But everybody was so busy that it was hard to keep it going. We did a couple of albums. Then I moved to New York and played with a lot of different great musicians. Luckily, New York is full of big names in the Latin world. Then I moved to Charleston, which was, at the beginning, a mistake. Now I’m really grateful that that happened.

People say everything happens for a reason. When I was in Charleston, I thought my career could end here because I didn’t know anybody. I was living in Summerville without a car because in New York, you don’t need a car. I never thought of buying a car. Then I was cleaning windows for a company because that was the only thing I could do. A friend of mine and her family lent me some money to buy an old car. So, I bought a little old car and was cleaning windows with it. I was thinking, “Oh my God, what am I doing here?” I was doing so well in Ecuador. I was the top percussionist in the recording world there. Then I moved to New York, and I was doing great, working with great people and on a good path. Suddenly, I’m here in Charleston, where I don’t know anybody.

What changed for you after you were here, thinking this was a mistake and you should be back in New York or Ecuador?

What changed was that I met Jack McCray. For those who don’t know, Jack McCray is one of the co-founders of Charleston Jazz and a great advocate for music, particularly jazz. I went online to find musicians in Charleston, and I found this percussion player. He sent me a message back saying that his band was going on tour and they needed a conga player. If I wanted, he would put me in touch with them. I was super excited. That guy was Stephen Sandifer, and the band was Dangermuffin. They were going on tour, and Stephen Sandifer gave me his spot, which is now Charleston Latin Jazz Collective.

That’s incredible. Some people forget the impact of just opening a door for another musician. Jack himself opened so many doors. Almost everyone I talk to in the jazz scene says, “Jack McCray introduced me to this person” or “helped me find a band” or “opened this door.” Long after he’s gone, we’re still running this organization that he helped found. The impact he’s had has been so profound.

He was the one who started it, and then I became really good friends with Quentin Baxter and Charlton Singleton.

I am so touched by your story because you are mentioning names that are familiar to all of us and what they meant to you. For the people who support Charleston Jazz, it’s important for them to hear this. These are stories they may not know happening behind the scenes. Nobody in town can mention Latin jazz without mentioning your name. You have really established yourself as a leader in the Latin jazz community. We are going to feature you with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, which is one of our favorite things to do. One of our most popular collaborations is when we put you on the billing. We have this Cha-Cha Charleston show coming up, and the title was inspired by a song you wrote. I remember sitting at home during COVID, and this video popped up. Almost everybody that I know in the music scene in Charleston was popping up in this video. So, we named our show “Cha Cha Charleston.” Do you want to tell everyone about the video and the song? How did that come about?

Actually, I wrote that song right after I felt that Charleston was home 10 years ago. Let me tell you, the Charleston music scene is the best in the world. The amount of love is incredible. I get emotional because I have felt that in my life recently. One day, I was just trying to say something. I don’t even remember how. I used to joke with my kids all the time in the car when I was driving them home, making up silly songs. I always told them, “I’m going to record this. I’m going to be famous.” And they would say, “No, Dad, please don’t do that,” because they were the silliest tunes. But one day, I was like, “Cha Cha Charleston,” and they were like, “No, Dad, please don’t do that.” Then I got home, and I started to put it together. I wrote a song about Charleston, and it was basically part of my story.

When the pandemic was almost over, I thought we had to do something. One day, I had no idea how it came to my mind, and I sent a message to Charlton Singleton. I said, “Dude, I want to do this. Do you want to do it?” And he said, “Let’s do it.”

Cha-Cha Charleston Song

I wrote this song for Charleston.

You probably weren’t thinking at the time that “Cha Cha Charleston” would inspire a Charleston Jazz Orchestra concert with the same title. If anyone wants to see this song, “Cha Cha Charleston,” in the show coming up on September 14th at the Charleston Music Hall, there are two shows: a 5:00 and an 8:00 show. Tickets for these shows with Gino go really fast, so head over to the ticket page on charlestonjazz.com and reserve your spot. We also have a special guest joining Gino and the Jazz Orchestra on stage. Tell the world who Yusa is.

Yusa is one of my best friends, first of all. She has a beautiful heart, but she is an outstanding musician. Her talents can go to the moon and back and overwhelm you with all the sensations you want to feel when she plays music, whether it’s the piano, guitar, bass, or her songs. It’s all about art. Yusa is an art form. She is one of the most important musicians Cuba has had in the last 30 years. She was the first female to graduate in college with the title of tres player. That instrument she plays, the Cuban tres, she was the first to graduate with that title. She’s one of the best players in the world. Her songwriting is incredible, and she’s famous in several parts of the world. In Cuba, she’s a superstar. In Argentina, she’s a superstar. In Brazil, she’s a superstar. In Europe, she’s well-known. She just toured Japan because her music is very well-known in those places. It’s a big deal that we can have her playing again with us.

In closing, this has been a crazy year for you as a musician. You have shared with us some of the things you’ve dealt with as a musician. Your heart is to encourage other people. Tell us a little about the recent challenges you’ve had and how you’ve kept going as a musician.

Last year, in September, I went for a check-up to measure my sugar levels. I have diabetes, so I do this every three months. Some levels were not right, so we repeated several tests over a couple of weeks, and the doctor sent me to the oncologist. He called me and told me I needed to be in the hospital right away. That Saturday, I went to the hospital, and I didn’t leave for three months. I had leukemia. That started a new journey in my life. People sometimes look at me weird when I say this, but I’m grateful. I have learned so much.

In what way? What would you say?

About myself and about life. This situation really gave me the opportunity to learn what Charleston is. I’m so grateful. Charleston is my home, and the people in Charleston made me feel that way. I really want to thank everybody. I’m happy. These are tears of joy because I’m learning that life is about this. My goal in life now is just to be happy and share that happiness with the world. I used to be that guy who wanted to play perfectly, even if I never played perfectly. I was very technical in every aspect. But now I think that technicality has to be part of your performance, but you can never take your soul out of the equation.

Thank you so much for chatting. We’re just so honored that you’re part of our Charleston Jazz community and really appreciate your story.

Oh, completely honest, the honor is mine.


#inspirationalstory #musicianlife #jazz #latinjazz #hispanicheritagemonth #ginocastillo



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