Berklee Today

Facutly Profile

Eguie Castrillo: Reviving the Mambo

By Mark Small

  Eguie Castrillo
  Associate Professor Eguie Castrillo
  Photo by Phil Farnsworth

For a time, the musical path of Latin percussionist and Associate Professor Eguie Castrillo veered away from the direction in which he began, but then it circled around again bringing him back to his early interests. Growing up in the Cupey section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Castrillo's first showed hints of musical ability playing a tiny organ in his parents' living room. "I used to play the theme to the movie The Godfather and 'Noche de Paz' ["Silent Night"] on that organ, and it would make my mother cry," Castrillo says. He continues with a laugh, "I wonder now if she was crying because it touched her or because it sounded bad."

Either way, Castrillo's parents ultimately diverted his attention from the organ when he was seven years old by giving him a set of timbales for Christmas. "I loved the timbales and would practice for eight hours most days," Castrillo recalls. "Timbales are very loud. When I played at night, the neighbors would call the police. Finally, we all came to an agreement that I would have to stop playing by 8:00 p.m. But by the time that happened, I had become good friends with the police!"

One artist whose music profoundly affected Castrillo early on was the late, great bandleader and percissionist Tito Puente. "After I saw him playing timbales, I knew what I wanted to do with my life," Castrillo says. "I wanted to be a timbalero." At 11, he met Giovanni Hidalgo, who Castrillo believes is one of the best conga players anywhere. The connection helped broaden Castrillo's musical horizons. "I was lucky to grow up around him," Castrillo says. "After we met, I started playing conga and bongos and even a little bit of bata drums." These days, Castrillo is an in-demand percussionist and is regarded as an authority on the rhythms of the Caribbean countries Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad and Tobago. Castrillo has performed and/or recorded with such Latin luminaries as Arturo Sandoval, Ruben Blades, Paquito D'Rivera, and Michel Camilo as well as icons of American pop and jazz that include Michael Brecker, Susan Tedeschi, KC and the Sunshine Band, Dave Valentin, and Jennifer Lopez.

Castrillo started playing professionally with several groups in high school. By the time he left Puerto Rico in 1993, he had played with all of the top names in the country. "I felt I had to move to see where my talent would take me," says Castrillo. "I was 30 years old by then and felt that if I was going to do this, I'd better go for it. A group in New York called, promising me good work as a conguero if I moved there. I had a family and owned a house in Puerto Rico by then, so moving to New York was a big change." In the end, the work never materialized, and Castrillo left New York for Miami, where he was soon hired by Latin-jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

"The five years I spent playing with Arturo were great," says Castrillo. "We traveled around the world four times and played with many great musicians, including Michael Brecker, Steve Winwood, and Cachao Lopez." Toward the end of that stint, Castrillo wanted a change. He sought to tour less and spend more time at home with his family. At the urging of Professor Victor Mendoza and others, Castrillo moved to the Boston area and began teaching at Berklee in 1999.

Since his arrival in the area, he has worked with many acts, and very few of them are Latin artists looking for a timbale player. "So many people call me to play congas," he says. "I also get called upon to play all kinds of grooves. You can apply any rhythm to the congas. You can be playing salsa and then change to calypso, or cross over to American music like funk, rock, blues, or whatever. You can also play the traditional rhythms of different Carribean countries like the bomba from Puerto Rico or rhythms from Venezuela. That is the beauty of that instrument."

While Castrillo has made a good living playing congas, his first love remains the timbales. His musical path is arcing toward the music that was his early inspiration. It has been his dream since 1989 to be a timbalero leading a large ensemble playing mambos, cha-chas, and rumbas in a salute to the 1950s Palladium era in New York. "When Tito Puente passed away in 2000, I went to the funeral, stood by his casket, and made a promise that I would try to carry on the tradition he started. I want to bring the mambo back with some new touches."

Castrillo's first chance to do so came last fall when Rob Rose, Berklee's vice president for special programs, invited Castrillo to present a Latin big band concert at the Berklee Performance Center. "I did a tribute to the Mambo Kings, Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez," says Castrillo. "The people loved it. Since that concert, so many doors have opened. Boston's WCVB-TV did a segment on me for their Chronicle show. We have gigs this summer, including an appearance at Berklee's Vineyard Vibes festival in August."

In May, Castrillo released a new mambo CD, titled Palladium Tradition, and he couldn't be happier. "I am very pleased with the record," he says. "There is a medley of boleros and a rumba from Cuba that I adapted and had Jos? Madera, conguero and arranger for Tito Puente, arrange for us."

While Castrillo feels that Puente left big shoes to fill, he wants to do what he can to keep the music alive. "I want to continue passing on knowledge and stories to my students," he says.

Castrillo is also passing his knowledge on to his family members. He and his wife have a 15-month-old son, Diego, who is following in his father's footsteps. "He plays the timbales all the time-even more than me. If you take the sticks away, he cries. If I put on a Tito Puente video, Diego watches it as if it was Barney. I think he will end up playing better than me."