27 February 2011

What’s a surrey?

O…klahoma where the da da da-da-da-da daaaa. That was about all I knew about the musical, except a discussion in recent weeks about the origin of the word “dashboard” that quoted a line from The surrey with the fringe on top, a song from, you guessed it, Oklahoma! The surrey was obviously a horse-drawn carriage, but I wasn’t too clear in my mind about that either. Oklahoma! was the first musical of Rodgers and Hammerstein and it was a great success on Broadway when released in 1943 running for a season of 2,212 performances. It’s a story of a central romance (Curly and Laurey) and a secondary comic romance (Ado Annie and Will Parker) set in early 20th century Oklahoma. There’s a subtheme of farmers versus cowpokes, a touch of Persian derogation (a wiley plot by Ali Hakim to avoid a shotgun marriage to girl-who-can’t-say-no Ado Annie), a good bit of dance including a long dream scene and a dramatic plot involving a misfit farm-worker (Jud Fry). The story is light, mainly centered on sexual politics around the box-social where males lasciviously donate to the school to win the hampers prepared by their favourites). The dramatic story centres on Jud who pines for Laurie and fights with Curley for her. This drama was out-of-place for me but the play obviously needed something more substantial to get through the 2 ½ hours. I found Jud’s death at the hand of cleanskin Curley and subsequent town-meeting judgement of “not guilty” that allowed the lovers to catch the train due 20 minutes was difficult. I expect the US is much more aware of murder and they also have strange rites that take local democracy to a level that’s absurd to our Australian sensibilities.

But how were the performances? I loved it. It’s an amateur cast and orchestra and they did it bloody well. Not like you’d expect on Broadway, of course, but very, very well done. Accomplished dance; decent voices; easy acting. I particularly liked Curley’s voice, but the other main characters were very good and the crowd scenes with harmonies were also harmonious. Ado Annie’s presence was madly effective as the flitter-brained floozy. The stage set was decent, and the cowboys’ thumbs in belts and womanly presence were effective and Aunt Eller’s presence was sensible and mature and held the story and the characters together. The accents stood out a little, but it was all a bit of a joke anyway. And the orchestra. Leisa Keen was the musical director. Sally Greenaway was to be the conductor, but was sick. The band included several jazz school graduates from these pages. The music was comfortable from the first bars of the overtures: well intoned and relaxed, although I did feel the chops were tiring by the end. And the instrumentation interested me, given a sound that was surprisingly full although obviously not orchestral. The music is light, but there are a few memorable tunes: Oh what a beautiful morning, The surrey with the fringe on top, I cain’t say no, People will say we’re in love, and of course the eponymous title song.

I was also interested by the associated history. Oklahoma! is set in early 1900s. Oklahoma (the state) was only declared a state in 1907, after it use in previous decades for relocation of Native American populations and subsequent ranching. It was also the dust bowl of 1930s fame.

So, a wonderful performance of an entertaining musical and much enjoyed. You couldn’t help but come out with that feeling … oh what a beautiful day, everything’s coming my way. Nice one and congratulations to Free-Rain Theatre Company. Some selected performers are: Barbara Denham (Aunt Eller), Dave Evans (Curly), Jenna Roberts (Laurey), Mathew Chardon O’Dea (Will Parker), Amy Dunham (Ado Annie), David Spence (Jud Fry) and Tony Falla (Ali Hakim). The orchestra comprised: Leisa Keen (keyboards1, bass), Ale O’Sullivan (keyboards 2), Derrick Brassington (percussion), Kiri Sollis (flute), Matter O’Keefe and Reid Furlanetto (clarinets), Jess Odonoue (oboe), Carly Broan and Curtis Gordon (horns), Jono Apps, Ax Long and Claire Leske (trumpets), Valdis Thomann (trombone). There are numerous others front- and back-stage who deserve mention too, but no room here.

Talkin’ ‘bout our politicians*

“Queer old dean” is a well-known spoonerism, and “shining wit” is a funny put down and the one I know best of all I won’t write here. Shortis and Simpson didn’t use any of these, but the most talked-about song of the night was the “bloke from the bar” act that was replete with all manner of original and challenging and political figures of speech. Like “bop the stoats” (=stop the boats) or “Oh Jockey” (=Joe Hockey). These are obvious enough, but they come at breakneck speed so not it’s easy to catch them all. “No more Revin Kudd / on the job 74/2 / the fart smeller” or “what an uck fup / they’re all a wunch of bankers”. You get the idea: lively wit and political awareness required. The bloke finished it all to raves and cheers and summed up somewhat touchingly: “Pong for one lolly / that could give us soap in our holes”. Shortis and Simpson were in performance for the Friends of the ABC as they closed their ACT branch, so a desire for soap in our holes is not at all out of place. Our politics is desperate and bedraggled these days, so we can do with some hope, and for that matter, some soap.

S&S were a cabaret romp through the fields of recent political theatre: the elections, and pomp, the triviality and disappointments. They’ve been good years for disappointments and S&S don’t miss a beat. A mix of songs we know and love, somewhat altered in lyrics and intent, joined with originals and chatter. It’s foot tapping, humourous, intelligent, but with a wry and serious side. “Rudd is in the air” (from Love is in the air). “Two Wrights and a Wong” amongst a list of parliamentarians in our “well hung Parliament”. Or on election debate worms: “A worm is a turning thing” (from Wheel of fire) or “They’re only worms / and worms are all I have / to send the votes away” (from It’s only words). Or for Mark Latham when he ambushed Julia Gillard during the election: “Disastrous Mark is lurking in the Park (from Macarthur Park, of course), then the election “Suddenly / there’s a place that’s hanging over me / an election booth I have to be” (from Yesterday). Or a few for the mad monk: the paeon to Bad Abbott (from Bad Habit) and the rollicking “Canonisation / that’s the name of the game / with each veneration / you play it the same” (from Multiplication). You get the picture. If this all makes sense to you, catch Shortis & Simpson. Put on your thinking caps and don’t be too precious. Excellent satire and perfect political entertainment for Canberra insiders and fellow travellers.

*Somewhat forced, but sung to the tune of Talkin’ ‘bout our generation / The Who

Jocie and friends

Gossips played a gig recently with Jocie Jensen sitting in at Bite to Eat Café. There were lots of friends there, and that was fun, and the music was casual and entertaining. Thanks to Jocie and congratulations. She got some very positive comments from fellow singers and that’s something to note. Just two sets. Here are some pics. On the day, Gossips featured Jocie Jensen (vocals) with Mike Dooley (piano), Richard Manderson (tenor, soprano sax), Eric Pozza (bass) and Brenton Holmes (drums).

26 February 2011

Mary had a little lamb

Mary had a little lamb. So sang Chris Harland with his Blues Band blustering away on a steady 12 bar groove. Then the guitar solo. Guitar solos are big and important and emotive in blues, at least in guitar blues. Later in the night, fellow local blues guitar whiz Dave Blanken sat in and the different styles of these two players became evident. Chris is of the Hendrix blues-rock era to my ears: distorted and compressed, screaming bends, fast, florid, ecstatic. Dave is from an earlier era, probably Chicago blues: a more naked valve tone, slower, more phrased, earthier. I was interested to hear the two together, to appreciate the differences, and I enjoyed them both. And I enjoyed the steady and repetitive but purposeful bass and the coolly played drums, the boogies and 12/8s and the rest. The whole is attractive and involving and bodily. You see it in the dancers, and there was a full dance floor for most of the set. The music has seriousness but it’s also for beering, dancing and partying. It was clearly good for the bar. All great fun and emotive and skilled in its own non-academic way although the lyrics which can be less than poetic. There were several of the “All I want to do / is play the blues on my guitar” variety, but there was also the more obscure “I’m a cross-cut saw” which sounded more authentic down south working man. It’s great to revisit the blues scene. If only my ears could handle it better, but that’s also a part of my generation’s blues-rock history.

19 February 2011

Amongst the pokies

It was just a quick visit to the National Press Club for one set. Andy Butler was leading a piano trio with Phill Jenkins and Aidan Lowe. The bar was pretty quiet but there’s an acoustic grand piano so the sound is as it should be, even if it has to occasionally fight with the jangling musak of the pokies. They played standards and did a wonderful job. Andy was calm but inventive, moving away from obvious chordal statements, holding template lines that modulated with harmonic movements. Phill held the bass end admirably. His volume was too low at times, but his playing was nicely correct and in the solid lower positions. (I’m working on my right hand double bass pizzicato technique and that was the main reason for this visit. FYI, it’s a very physical but loose technique and Phill had it down nicely). Aidan moved through colours of cymbals to jazz grooves, mostly with brushes, as I remember. It was a lovely range of standards done with calm invention in a piano bar environment. Andy Butler (piano) led a trio with Phill Jenkins (bass) and Aidan Lowe (drums).

17 February 2011

Do no wrong

Chick Corea can do no wrong in my book, at least as regards music. This guy is a natural. He covers the waterfront: records Mozart and plays acoustic and electric jazz with conviction and imagination and immense skills and writes melodies to die for and has recorded some of my favourite piano trio music. I was looking forward to the new Return to Forever (RTF) at the Opera House although I was just a bit wary of the electric, unrelenting nature of jazz-rock with its hype and bluster and meganotes. But I had it wrong. The playing was beautifully relaxed, despite the most contorted unison lines, and the tunes themselves were surprisingly satisfying on the revisit. I had listened to RTF a lot in the past and not much of late, but the lines were like friends even if I couldn’t match many titles to tunes. I felt it was like electric chamber jazz: complex and precise variations on motifs that moved through a fabulously capable band with nicely contained spaces for solos. I’d heard Chick Corea in Adelaide in the Musicmagic era and remembered a long and hard-working concert. They are older now, but still working hard: this was 2.5 hours over two sets with no support act. Maybe they are flagging just a bit - I noticed a spot in the second set where I felt they were doing the rounds - but this was a show full of energy and invention and great skills.

Chick’s just wonderful. Every solo has purpose and development and his lines are to die for, always beautifully melodic and inevitably correct. And he was all eyes for the others, swapping licks with Jean-Luc and Frank, and setting the strongest of ostinatos that were nuclear-propelled. Jean-Luc Ponty was a diminutive character, especially next to the giant Stanley Clarke, but a master of his instrument. Beautiful and simply correct lines that wasted no notes and sang with perfect intonation, and written melodies that sat languidly like a summer Sunday afternoon lunch, just so easy and yet precise. I was also hanging out to hear local boy Frank and famed bassist Stanley. Frank was a wonder: I thought afterward how important his role was. There was no flash here, just immense solidity, the most lithe of solo lines that spoke with brash, fat guitar tone and ended with light-speed sweeps or delightful little upturns. These were spectacular solos of purpose and development and smooth skills. I thought they worked best on the electric – the style didn’t seem to cross so easily to the steel-string acoustic. But the sound was disappointing. His guitar was fat and even-sounding and I was not the only one to miss many lines of solo. Clarity was better on acoustic but still very poor for this level in such a venue. In fact, the whole band seemed a bit mushy, badly so in the first few tunes (I’ve heard this before at the Opera House and it’s disappointing) and to some degree ongoing with the louder electric stuff. But the thing that really got me about Frank was his back-line solidity: all those perfectly played unison lines that sat so perfectly, unnoticed but essential. This was a rock solid and superbly professional and composed performance. Stanley was his normal blatheringly fast player. I was a bit disappointed. Lots of hammering solos lines at megaspeed that were excitement personified, showy hands in the air and rock star swagger and interestingly the central spot on the stage. It was a massive display of technique but the solos just seemed to go nowhere: all brash and flash. There was some lovely playing in the second half on double bass - still fast, but some fabulous thumb position work across the neck with melody and harmonic movements - but too often that resort to the mega-pluck. It’s not unimpressive, but that’s what it is. Stanley has just won a Grammy and has 55 films to his credit (so said Chick) but I didn’t hear the lyricism that he must display as such a successful composer. Maybe it’s just Stanley in his guise as RTF mega-bass, but the band’s encore, Schooldays, was to par. Compared to the complexity and inventiveness of Chick’s charts, Schooldays is a schoolboy rocker’s romp. I guess that’s all it’s meant to be, but it does little for me despite the admittedly catchy melody. Lenny White finished the lineup. He didn’t make much of an impression on me. Capable and correct but mostly pretty straight jazz-rock grooves and a few fills. Not wrong but not particularly memorable either. He did take a short solo at the end that was nice but there wasn’t much of it. My mate Asanka wondered about the tom mix; perhaps we were missing detail.

It was the relaxed but virtuosic performance of fabulously rich and melodic charts that made it for me. Along with Weather Report, this is probably as far as jazz-rock goes and it was a very satisfying performance. Return to Forever played at the Sydney Opera House. The new RTF comprises Chick Corea (keyboards), Jean-Luc Ponty (violin), Frank Gambale (guitar), Stanley Clarke (electric, acoustic bass) and Lenny White (drums).

14 February 2011

Flurry and bustle

Megan and I were surprised by the flurry and bustle and goodwill of the Multicultural Festival. This is Canberra community with many accents. Not being ones for big events, we hadn’t been for a few years. This was big and busy and the location, City Walk and thereabouts, was perfect for the multiple stages and the food stalls. That was Saturday night, the big night. I got down Sunday early afternoon for a while, too, and discovered the Reconciliation stage outside Canberra Theatre, and even caught a Big Name. So, what did I/we see?

Sunday’s big name was Troy Cassar-Daley, no less. This is a man up from country and a genuinely effective and professional performer. It’s country, so “just three chords and the truth” as someone observed, but the structures were embellished, the voice was good, the patter was quick and friendly and the band was tight. I cringe at the heart-sleeve emotions and the true blue rhymes and the pride in country themes, but it’s honest enough, and the grooves were simple and solid, the playing was effective and the guitars were in tune (more on this later). So says Cassar-Daley: “when they sing about this country … sing about a land that’s yours and mine .. com’on, sing about this country of mine”. “You’re a brother or sister of mine / so open up / leave your troubles behind”. “I wrote this song for me wife and kids … love doesn’t get much bigger than that”. Troy, I agree with the sentiment. Well done.

Saturday’s night was various Latin American. Firstly, Calypso Pan-tas-tic. CP is a project of Courtney Leiba, steel drum player, ex Trinidad Tripoli Steelband and now Canberra resident. The tunes were well known, Summertime and the like. The sound was the sharply ringing tone of the steel drum with the nicely professional Funky Fedoras. People were dancing; kids were looked after; the band was having a good time and sounded good. And I was surprised to see Wayne Kelly was on keys. Welcome back, Wayne.

The second was a classic samba band. The program said Brazilian Latin, but I think the band was Sydney Salsa All Stars. Typically infectious, moving rhythms and bass claves and piano montuno and high, latin voices and layers of brass and percussion. Loved it. You can’t help but move. We were standing next to a couple doing the perfect seductive latin dance. How infectious is this music? Great.

The third was a drum band with very attractive set of female samba dancers (overt sexism alert). I’ve found them on YouTube as HotBeat Productions Brazilian dance show. They are amusingly advertised for corporate functions with a video of suited types studiously ignoring long-legged half-dressed bodies moving through their world. It was something like that here in Canberra. Plenty of ogling guys checking out the taut bottoms; girls enjoying the show but just a tad uncomfortable. Feathers swinging; arses jiggling; legs flailing; drums hammering. The dance was obviously the show here and the musical backing was just drums. But how many? Eight, I think. The rhythms were good although not as rich as I would have expected from so many performers. But this is obviously a visual, rather than aural, feast. It’s sexy and it’s the closest I’ve got to the Rio Carnevale. But then Rio might be deflated this year. They had a warehouse fire that destroyed many floats and thousands of costumes. Was Saturday Night in Canberra the place to be for samba dancing in 2011? Good fun but I doubt it.

Back to tuning. I went to see another act, somewhere, someone, unnamed. One guy with a guitar and an interestingly distant voice. I could have liked the music, but he continually retuned and never got it right. He was plugged into lots of effects as well as a laptop. He could have used a tuner. Or better, he could also have learnt to hear the difference. He was tuning by clear harmonic beats and still didn’t get it. And then his singing was out too. Er… Enough said.

13 February 2011

Big improv

It’s not a thing of melody or even harmony, although there’s some minimal harmony there, and although there are times of immense rhythmic energy, there are others where rhythm is in repose. I don’t find Spartak and their like an intellectual music, more a music that guts the senses and pummels the emotions: intensely present and demanding of a response. Spartak’s gig yesterday at the Phoenix was wonderfully satisfying. I think it’s mood that this music emanates, with segments that are dreamy and others explosive.

Evan was in fabulous form. The drums were loud and heavy and big sounding in rock style rather than submissive swing and he was writhing in his seat as he threw forth the most truncated syncopations, hugely varied in rhythm and tone and, well, creative. I was aghast with these drums. Powered, precise, full and rounded and profusely varied. Taking the more cerebral drones from Shoeb’s processed guitar or voice or clarinet and exploding rhythmic possibilities. This was loud and it fitted, although it would have benefited from a clearer PA to serve the sound. I lost the detail of Shoeb’s lava-like structures as they flowed glutinously through the soundscapes. I noticed some simple repeated minor thirds, but the PA didn’t do justice to the detail, and the essence of this is the detail. The duo played a single set of 30 minutes, moving in and out through themes like Peon the week before. This was one set of Travis Heinrich’s mini festival, “Hey Dad, can you pick me up from Josh’s, otherwise it’s like two buses”. Being a parent to this university-aged group I see it from the other side, but the odd title rings true just the same. Nice to visit the Phoenix, too. It’s delightfully bohemian-bedraggled with a pleasant and intelligent clientelle. The festival was mostly indie, JJJ-style but the audience recognised and responded to this free, improvised music. So both audience and band impressed. Short but sweet all round.

Spartak are Shoeb Ahmad (guitar, voice, clarinet, laptop and processing) and Evan Dorrian (drums, percussion, some processing) and they played at the Phoenix Pub.

PS. Thanks to Shoeb for this explanatory info below. BTW, Spartak are soon heading off to play concerts in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Japan. Best of luck from CJ. In the meantime, you can hear them on 17 March at Urbancity, a mixed arts festival around Canberra over several days in March.

"I like what you wrote about our music being just really an intellectual music but something more visceral and physical - that's how we approach the improvisations we do and I think it helps making it a bit more 'accessible' though of course, I think the music itself has to mean something to the listener to really understand it, as with most free improvised music.

"Also, it's good that you noted that a lot of the sonic detail wasn't clear through the PA. Evan and I feel that we play louder and 'heavier' in those situations, even if it's still very washed out. I assume it adds to the physical nature of the sound but when we perform in, say, a gallery space, the music becomes a little bit more clear and spacious, maybe more delicate too.

"Re my sounds, I am essentially running my electric guitar through various effects pedals with distortions and looping functions directly into the laptop where I also have some processing tools and can set up loops, mainly as layers. Melodically, I was building up layers of guitar notes and chords, both clean plucked and without the string attack so I had a base before I started playing any sort of clear chord progression. During the middle section, I used the guitar as a soundboard by using the pickups to amplify the dictaphone with a field recording of trains I took in Bangladesh and also amplified the music box to have a melodic point of difference.

"The harmonica mic I had was also going into the laptop, so I could do some real-time processing with either the vocal or the clarinet so it has a more texturally quality.

"Evan was running loops and sounds of his laptop at various points during the performance though he also does some live processing with a microphone on the drum kit which adds a nice texture to the wall of sound."

Lightly edited email from Shoeb Ahmad

8 February 2011

Who? What!

Cognac Lounge played a particularly smooth gig on Sunday, and I was enjoying the lounge grooves and even the hipster-cum-nightclubby connotations of this music was amusing revelry. Playing hits of Sneaky Sound System (who?) and Barry Gibb (what!) and Leonard Cohen (revived blast from the past) and big names and mid-sized names that I’d never heard of that were newer than Miles and not as new as Me’shell.

We fitted in a few swingers, too: the commonly jazzed up ones, but also Joyspring (vibrant) and East of the sun west of the moon (delightful) and Lament (exquisite). Lots of bass solos, Peter playing some angular substitutions and finding ways back in, Monica in fine voice which I seemed to hear for the first time given better monitoring and Brenton loose and busy over a performance rich in (musical) vamps. I’m gigging a bit more frequently these days, so time to stop reporting the run-of-the-mill gigs here, but this one was great fun.

6 February 2011

Come Peon

Peon. It’s an obscure word. I had to look it up: a landless labourer doing dull or heavy work, especially in Spanish America. There’s a certain dignity in serfdom, but even so it’s a strange name to give to a band. But for a double drummer outfit experimenting with electronica, maybe it fits. It’s certainly not the commonplace of disco or bar and the addition of percussion and trumpet didn’t make it much more amenable to unready ears. But it was fascinating and involving, especially when you closed your eyes and let the layers of rhythm pass over you. This is challenging stuff, but I felt plenty of links to other musics. The music flowed in and out, so each set was one continuous piece, but the music and themes came, grew and faded, to await another. I loved the African talking drums and the complex polyrhythms that were common throughout the night. I still heard this as essentially drum music, so with two drummers the polyrhythms were not unexpected. I especially remember one time with two snares that passed in the night, one snapping slightly more frequently than the other, so they came together then parted. But there are layers of percussion here, contrasting or complimenting or referencing and always a rich aural tapestry. I asked Sam if the music was free. No, there’s a structure although with plenty of freedom to move. One structure was a bass-like line randomly altered and repeated by a PC program, so the leader in this case was a random number generator in a laptop. The PC did other work on voice and trumpet that were miked and repeated and bent and extended to unhuman glissandi flying to the sky. Miro added an additional melodic element to the music that I really liked. The muted trumpet was a joy, with rapid tonguing bouncing against the drumbeats, enlivening with intervals that implied constantly changing harmonies. Ronny explored some less sophisticated melodies on a little melodica keyboard, played some other effects and the drums, of course, but also an African instrument (ngoni?) that once more set the scene at the heart of the African drumming tradition. Sam mostly drummed, but also used PC modulation on voice and Miro’s trumpet to mystical effect and he had programmed the pieces. Electronica is part of our aural life since Dr Who but still seems limited in musical application, more an effect than a music. Despite the Moog experiments in conservatories in the ‘60s, and pop electronica that mostly does same-old-same-old with electronic tones, it still seems somewhat unexplored. This was an engrossing outing that successfully mixed digital tones and earthy drums that rose and fell and enveloped any listener who was ready to succumb. Peon, serf, perhaps, but walking down the street by bars and mainstream nightlife after, I wondered if maybe it’s the emperor who has no clothes.

Peon are Sam Price (drums, laptop, synths, voice) and Ronny Ferella (drums, melodica, ngoni, analogue effects) and Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet, percussion) sat in for the Canberra performances, at the Loft and this one at Smiths Alternative Bookshop. Visually Smith’s is a busy venue, but it’s got a nicely damped sound.

  • Cyberhalides Jazz Photos by Brian Stewart
  • 5 February 2011

    Swampy, steamy

    First off, I was attracted by the lazy, swampy grooves that emanated as his right hand pick and left hand slide easily coaxed the guitar sitting in his lap. A blend of melody and comping that was simple but right, as should be the way with blues. It was a steamy day, so the voice fit the down south mood: languid and unforced with an air of simple honesty. There’s a subdued acceptance in blues voices that makes them authentic. Rockers may play the blues but they miss that feel. This voice felt right to me. I wasn’t surprised to find the album on sale was titled “Live in Ireland”. The Irish have often been likened to slaves in their own way. The singer was Robert Owen Campbell (admittedly it’s a Scottish name, but the Scots have a similar narrative). He was busking at the Philip Town Square. He plays at the National Press Club, Soul Bar, Phoenix Bar. He sometimes plays with Mick Elderfield who I’ve heard busking jazz sax in this square. Blues and jazz: same roots.

    4 February 2011

    peon awaits

    … this everyman. I fretted to miss peon at the Loft, but I knew they were playing next night so OK. Instead, it was a night of ‘40s folly, fashion, frivolity and swinging tassels and lightly salacious burlesque. This was the Darling Sister’s opening night for their new vintage fashion store, and it was grander than I’d expected: more people, more show, more period whimsy. I have a connection to the Darling sisters, of course: Darling Leanne provides her voice for The Gossips, otherwise who’d guess this dag would be seen there. But out it was with Megan and friend Kate, all dressed to our nines, amongst the dapper and the breezy and the cocktail waiters and the swinging and swaying burlesque tassels (pant, pant). Melina Fahrenheit and Tiffany Blue, no less! Why do girls get to wear all this stuff? But we guys get to watch so it’s not all bad. One warning, though: if you visit, look out for that spiv, Alfred Pettigrew. I don’t tie my trailer too well, but can so much fall off the back of a truck? The Darling Sisters shop is at Gold Creek Square, and it’s got lovely period fashion that’s available in all sizes for real women.

  • Darling Sisters on the Web
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