One of the most well-known living homages to Colombia’s traditional Palenque culture, musician Rafael Cassiani Cassiani has been something of a mini-celebrity for some time now. He might not realize to what extent, though, seeing as he only recently discovered that his fans could watch him play on a thing called YouTube.
Despite being illiterate and 80 years of age, Cassiani has been internet-savvy for little more than half a year. When the first center for worldwide web-access opened its doors to the people of San Basilio de Palenque, a town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast considered to be one of the first free settlements in the Americas, the musician had no idea that there were ways of instantly connecting to people the world over.
Now, the Palenque-native surfs the web a good once a week.
“I’m a very stubborn man but I’m going to try it out,” Cassiani told Vicente Salgado Padilla, the manager of the town’s first free internet kiosk, a center opened only last May by the Colombian Ministry of Information Technology and Communications.
Because of the initiative, Cassiani and other villagers can make the daily journey to the center’s seven portable computers, where there are also two telephone lines, one printer, and one TV with DVD player.
A young grandson proved to be the ideal intermediary between the elderly man and the world of technology, helping Cassiani to take his starting steps into the virtual network.
Facebook, as is often the case, was the first stop. And now the 80-year-old uses it to talk to fellow Palenque music-lovers and friends the world over, upload pictures of his band, El Sexteto Tabala, and maintain regular contact with his daughter, who lives a few hours away in the coastal city of Barranquilla.
Unsurprisingly, the most avid visitors to the town’s technological hot-spot are its young generation, who use it both for social networking and to study long-distance.
The Ministry’s “Kioscos Vive Digital” project has so far brought free Internet access and training programs to numerous isolated rural communities over the past few years. With more than 1,100 kiosks in 14 Colombian states already established, 2014 will see five times as many centers, in locations ranging from state schools and military bases to Natural Parks and indigenous protected areas.
The main aim: to grant people like Cassiani the chance to gain literacy skills, digitally.
To his delight, Cassiani has been able to connect with people who have been brought together by their love of Palenque, a culture birthed by African slave communities with influences from indigenous Colombians, Spanish overseers and Portuguese slavers. In the early days of Spanish colonial rule, slaves along the Colombian coast who managed to escape would form walled cities, or palenques — the Brazilian equivalent are called quilombos — where they developed a new, insular culture based on traditional values and customs.
Chronicling the exact history of Palenque culture is difficult, as the communities lived according to an oral tradition. The Palenque language, however, the only Spanish-creole in the world, is still a vibrant part of daily life in San Basilio de Palenque, as is Palenque music, a magical-religious fusion of Cuban rhythms and cumbia, with rustic, expressive vocals and percussion.
One of the last surviving African colonies in the Spanish-speaking Americas, San Basilio de Palenque was recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity site in 2005.
- El músico palenquero que descubrió el Internet a los 80 años (Kien Y Ke)
- Rafael Cassiani, patrimonio musical de su pueblo y máximo exponente del son palenquero en Colombia (El Tiempo)
- El son palenquero (Atlas de Culturas Afrocolombianas)