Tag Archives: Performers

Ravi Shankar and the Concert for Bangladesh

 

In 1971 the turmoil and atrocities associated with the Bangladesh Liberation War led to a massive refugee crisis, with at least seven million displaced persons facing starvation and other humanitarian catastrophes.

Appalled by the situation in his homeland, Ravi Shankar spoke with his student and friend George Harrison about fundraising possibilities, and the idea of the Concert for Bangladesh was born. The initial gate receipts raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief.

Writing for the introduction to the 2005 re-release of the concert album and accompanying documentary, Shankar recalled:

“Hailing from Bengal, my heart went out to the Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh, and it was natural for me to reach out and want to help the refugees and the hundreds of thousands of little children…What happened is now history: it was one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century.”

“Again and again I am asked which concerts stand out in my memory, and it is very difficult to remember all the prominent ones as my career spans over seventy-five years of performances; but the Concert for Bangladesh was very significant to me as the conception of the idea came from me and the people needing aid were very close to my heart—some of them, of course, being distantly related to me.”

Quoted from “The Concert for Bangladesh” by Ravi Shankar, which is included in The Bangladesh reader: History, culture, politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013, pp. 508–09).

Today would have been Ravi Shankar’s 100th birthday! Above and below, moments from the documentary.

BONUS: The full performance, from the concert album.

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ECD’s legacy

 

The Japanese rap pioneer and activist ECD (Ishida Yoshinori, 石田義則) was neither the earliest nor most commercially successful rapper, and he would have eschewed calling himself a leader of any protest group; nonetheless, he was what Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual of the working class.

The frankness of his music, writing, and performances touched his audiences at an affective level, connecting them to the movements in which he participated. His life embodied the worlds of hip-hop, contentious politics, and the working class, and his songs convey a vivid account of his life, reflecting his personal and political concerns as well as the ambience of street protests.

ECD was a key figure in the development of the underground hip-hop scene, organizing events that allowed it to take root and to be lifted into commercial viability. He was on the front lines of several Japanese social movements—anti-Iraq War, anti-nuclear power, anti-racist, pro-democracy, and anti-militarization. He wrote protest anthems, inspired Sprechchor, performed at protests, and helped to establish a new mode of participatory performance that engaged protesters more fully. His sheer presence at demonstrations, constant and reliable, energized and reassured protesters.

This according to “‘It’s our turn to be heard’: The life and legacy of rapper-activist ECD (1960–2018)” by Noriko Manabe (The Asia-Pacific journal: Japan focus XVI/6 [March 2018]).

Today would have been ECD’s 60th birthday! Below, a live performance.

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Bobby McFerrin and science

 

In an interview, Bobby McFerrin responded to being termed a “science guy”:

“I’m not really much of a science guy, but I’ve been privileged to work with Daniel Levitan and Elaina Mannes, scientists who are interested in how music affects people. Well, every time I give a concert I spend my whole time observing how music affects the people! So it’s very interesting to me.”

“The piece I did at the World Science Festival is called the Pentatonic romp. I’ve performed it all over the world, and people everywhere can sing that scale by ear. Doesn’t matter what language they speak or what kind of music they listen to. It’s like it’s built in. I’ve done it for decades now and I still think it’s amazing!”

Quoted in “Science, faith and improv: An interview with Bobby McFerrin” (Bandwagon 17 February 2015).

Today is McFerrin’s 70th birthday! Above, performing at !Sing: Day of Song in 2010 (photo by Michael Koschinski); below, the 2009 World Science Festival performance.

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Ornette Coleman and harmolodics

 

In an interview, Ornette Coleman discussed the musical philosophy and compositional/improvisational method that he called harmolodics.

“Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop.”

“If a word means something else in another language, and it’s spelled and sounds the same, that’s very harmolodic. So, when you’re able to play like that, it expresses what sounds could be if they weren’t programmed to represent a certain territory. It has to do with what you base a concept of unity on. Unity in Europe comes from shared territories, not like America where unity is created out of shared conditions.”

“Harmolodics doesn’t change something from its original state. It expresses the information a melody has within its structure without taking it apart to find out why its sounds that way.”

Quoted in “Dialing up Ornette” by Bill Shoemaker (JazzTimes XXV/10 [December 1995] pp. 42–44).

Today would have been Coleman’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2008 (photo by Frank Schindelbeck; below, a performance from Coleman’s harmolodic funk period.

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Queering Bruce Springsteen

 

The narratives of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonate with many queer people, who are well aware of the possibility of a life-altering freedom that presents itself as the reward for stepping into your true self (even when that freedom comes, as is often the case, at great cost).

Springsteen is far from gay; some might argue he is one of the straightest men alive. Nonetheless, some fans regard his work as, in Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel’s words, “homoerotic or queerly suggestive”.

There’s also Carmen Rios’s “We’re here and we’re queering Bruce Springsteen” at one of the longest-running sites for queer women, Autostraddle; the queer writer Tennessee Jones’s short story collection Deliver me from nowhere, based on the album Nebraska; and the many queer Bruce Springsteen zines, from Because the Boss belongs to us to Butt Springsteen.

What exactly is so queer about Springsteen? Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler? Do many queers love Springsteen because nearly every song he has produced in his 50-year career reflects a crushing, unabiding sense of alienation and longing—and what could be more queer than that?

This according to “Things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town: The queerness of Bruce Springsteen” by Naomi Gordon-Loebl (The nation 6 November 2019).

Below, Springsteen’s Tougher than the rest, a song (and video) discussed in the article.

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James Reese Europe, ragtime hero

 

James Reese Europe was a composer, conductor, and organizer of the black community. A pioneer in jazz, he led the Clef Club Orchestra and other organizations in New York, and during World War I his 369th Infantry Regiment “Hellfighters” band was among the first exporters of jazz to Europe.

Working with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Europe was a prominent figure in black musical theater. He also worked with Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook, as well as the dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. His career was cut short in 1919, when he was murdered by a member of his own orchestra.

This according to A life in ragtime: A biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger (New York: Oxford, 1995).

Today would have been Europe’s 140th birthday! Below, one of his signature hits—W.C. Handy’s Memphis blues.

 

BONUS: A brief documentary focusing on Europe’s military career.

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Lady Gaga and Weird Al

 

Parody is often filled with internal contradictions at both the level of the critique of the original artwork and the level of the quality of the parodied performance. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not the only artist creating parodies of Lady Gaga, and she is not his only target.

Even Lady Gaga herself creates parody as she borrows from the pop stars of earlier eras and comments on their work. Critics suggest that her success is due, in part, to her quotations from other artists, but her work goes beyond simple imitation. On the level of performance, her self-conscious employment of parody is partly responsible for her success.

As a self-professed performance artist, Lady Gaga becomes a nexus of imitation in which she both showcases and expands the limits and the understanding of both parody and performance. Through his own parodies of Gaga’s parodic work, “Weird Al” highlights this reality.

This according to “Performing pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and parodied performance” by Matthew R. Turner, an article included in The performance identities of Lady Gaga: Critical essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, pp. 188–202).

Above and below, Yankovic’s Perform this way, a parody of Lady Gaga’s Born this way.

 

Above, Perform this way: Weird Al Yankovic at Edgefield by Paul Riismandel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Peter Gabriel and locatedness

 

Peter Gabriel is one of contemporary music’s great experimenters. From his work in the progressive group Genesis, through his pioneering solo albums, to his enthusiastic embrace of world music and new technologies, Gabriel has remained steadfastly consistent in his redefinition of music’s boundaries and influence: geographical, virtual, and thematic.

Central to his aesthetic is the idea of locatedness: what it means to be in a specific place at a given time, and to reflect on that time and the changes that inevitably occur. Gabriel’s work can be understood as a series of reflections on the “where” of being—including politics, psychology, philosophy, psychogeography, and inward reflection. His constant traveling—through identities, influences, and media—defines him as one of modern culture’s truly global citizens.

This according to Peter Gabriel: Global citizen by Paul Hegarty (London: Reaktion, 2018).

Today is Gabriel’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2011; below, In your eyes from Secret world live.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, World music

Smithsonian Collections Object: Debbie Harry Photography, National Portrait Gallery

Debbie Harry Portrait, 1986 (printed 2004), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of The Motion Picture Group, Inc., Philadelphia, PA USA.

“Color me your color, darling, I know who you are” –Debbie Harry

In this picture taken by Francesco Scavullo—a fashion photographer well known for his 1972 Cosmo centerfold photo of a hirsute Burt Reynolds splayed across a bearskin rug—Debbie Harry appears in a leather jacket, metal-studded bracelet, heavy raccoon-style eye makeup, and artfully mussed/moussed blonde hair with black roots peeking through.

A promotional shot for Harry’s second solo album, Rockbird (1986), the image is much more stereotypically “punk rock” than most images seen of her before. The juxtaposition is all the most striking given that Rockbird is the most purely pop album of Debbie Harry’s or Blondie’s career (and probably the most dated, for better or worse, given the transparently time-stamped mid-1980s production).

As a photographic subject Debbie Harry has provoked seemingly endless fascination—at least judging by the massive volume of images in circulation—not just for her striking appearance but also, it could be argued, for the intimate, yet equally enigmatic, nature of so many of the photos. Taken together, the images invite comparison to pioneering female photographers ranging from Cindy Sherman to Francesca Woodman—except for the fact that most of the photos are not technically self-portraits.

Debbie Harry has to be one of the most photographed women in rock history (notably, almost every biography of Blondie and Debbie Harry is presented as a “pictorial biography” as well). Her image has long been considered so crucial to the band Blondie, featured on posters and in books and magazines—some of which would notoriously crop the rest of the band out of the original image—that their label Chrysalis Records saw fit to launch a “Blondie Is A Group” marketing blitz in 1978. But the band were hardly dupes in this image-making enterprise.

For one thing, this imagistic breadth reflects the band itself that Harry has fronted for all these years. Nominally a “punk” band who were in the mix of the early CBGB scene, Blondie was ultimately better known for being on the vanguard of multiple musical crossovers and cutting-edge stylistic trends than for their “punk rock” cred—weaving together old and new, mixing elements of punk primitivism with melodic ‘60s pop, Phil Spector studio productions, classic girl groups, Jamaican rocksteady, disco, early rap, and many other genres besides.

In Lester Bangs’ long out-of-print band biography (and extended think-piece-cum-rant) titled Blondie (1980), he quotes drummer Clem Burke who asserts “that music goes hand-in-hand with image.” A somewhat novel sentiment for a rock band in the early MTV era—especially one that emerged from one of the most sacrosanct undergrounds of all time—Debbie Harry and Blondie were just as savvy and creative with their imagery as with their music. Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist and most frequently-featured songwriter who also happened to be Debbie Harry’s life partner at the time, was also an avid photographer on the side. His primary subject was, unsurprisingly, Debbie Harry (alongside bandmates and his life as a working musician).

In his book Lester Bangs goes on to criticize the band for its ever-expanding stylistic palette and its alleged inauthenticity as a result. A study in contrasts in his own right, Bangs was known for being in-equal-measures rhapsodic and curmudgeonly. His Blondie book began life as an authorized biography but was ultimately published without the band’s imprimatur. Referring to Debbie Harry’s “Lolita” image in particular, Bangs writes that he would “lay any odds…it sure as hell ain’t the same person as the one called Deborah Harry.” This all seems a strange line of reasoning, however, for a critic who lionized artists such as David Bowie and Lou Reed (who, to be fair, Bangs was also quite critical of at times) known to be similarly “blank” or “kaleidoscopic” in their music and image.

In Blondie Lester Bangs champions this very quality of self-invention when it comes to punk rock in the broader sense. He praises early punk and proto-punk bands, the New York Dolls in particular, for bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to its roots as “the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action,” for which the main quality required is nerve (“If you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about.”) By this criteria, given their penchant for constant self-reinvention, it would seem that Blondie were the ultimate punk band of the CBGB scene, even if stylistically they didn’t fit the sound and the look many thought of as punk.

Debbie Harry encapsulates many of these “contradictory” qualities in her image, voice, and stage presence. She’s a Jersey girl who became the ultimate New York City hipster. A disco queen and a punk diva. A woman in her 30s by the time Blondie started scoring hits, Debbie Harry and Blondie created “teenage fun for adults and vice-versa” (Bangs). Debbie is a convincing and powerful singer of oft-sublime songs who at the same time can sound (and look) a little bit detached from it all—which only heightens the dramatic tension in the best of cases, check out “Atomic” for example—contributing lyrics that mix-and-match searing emotion, ironic twists, and occasional surrealism. In the visual realm, Debbie is widely considered to be beyond glamourous. But often with an observable wink, not to mention charmingly awkward at times.

Official video for Blondie’s “Atomic”

For those paying attention the pose may be transparently apparent, just as it’s most likely meant to be. For this reason, perhaps, Debbie Harry has become an icon of queer culture. On an early Blondie demo titled “Platinum Blondie,” Debbie sings in character—“I even tried wearing a wig for a while…but I got some peroxide at the beauty supply”—lyrics that would do most any drag performer proud. To this day she’s a fixture on the New York City LGBTQ scene, attending events like Squeezebox (in the 1990s) and Jackie 60 productions such as Night of a Thousand Stevies up to the present. If, in fact, there are “a thousand Debbies” it is very much by design. The tensions and potentials brought about by this pastiche-driven creative process—a playful overlapping of elements that at first appear to be disparate and incompatible—is hinted at in the image captured by Francesco Scavullo, a photograph that overlaps visual markers of authenticity and obvious stylization which resonate with Debbie Harry’s musical history.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bangs, Lester. Blondie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447]

Bayley, Roberta. Blondie: Unseen, 1976–1980 (London: Plexus, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-34941]

Blondie were the most commercially successful band to emerge from the New York punk scene of the mid 1970s, producing a series of number one albums between 1977 and 1982 and selling over 50 million records worldwide. This book features 235 photographs of Debbie Harry and Blondie taken by the famous first-wave punk rock photographer. (publisher)

DeRogatis, Jim. Let it blurt: The life and times of Lester Bangs, America’s greatest rock critic (New York: Broadway Books, 2000). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-5597]

A biography of the gonzo journalist widely considered a romantic visionary of rock criticism. In publications such as Creem, The Village voice, and New York rocker, Bangs agitated during the 1970s for sounds that were harsher, louder, more electric, and more alive, in the course of which he charted and defined the aesthetics of heavy metal and punk. He was treated as a peer by musicians such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Captain Beefheart, the Clash, and Debbie Harry. Bangs’s life and writings provide a window on rock criticism and rock culture in their most turbulent and creative years. (publisher)

Harry, Deborah, Chris Stein, and Victor Bockris. Making tracks: The rise of Blondie (Repr. ed.; New York: Da Capo, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-8232]

Harry, Deborah. Face it (New York: Dey Street Books, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-8835]

Musician, actor, activist, and the iconic face of New York City cool, Debbie Harry is the frontwoman of Blondie, a band that forged a new sound that brought together the worlds of rock, punk, disco, reggae, and hip hop to create some of the most beloved pop songs of all time. As a muse, she collaborated with some of the boldest artists of the past four decades. The scope of Debbie Harry’s impact on our culture has been matched only by her reticence to reveal her rich inner life, until now. In a mix of visceral, soulful storytelling and stunning visuals—including photographs, bespoke illustrations, and fan art installations—this book upends the standard music memoir while delivering a truly prismatic portrait. With all the grit, grime, and glory recounted in intimate detail, it re-creates the downtown scene of 1970s New York City, where Blondie played alongside the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Following her path from commercial success to heroin addiction, the near-death of partner Chris Stein, a heart-wrenching bankruptcy, and Blondie’s breakup as a band to her multifaceted acting career in more than 30 films, a solo career, and the triumphant return of her band, and her tireless advocacy for the environment and LGBTQ rights, this is a cinematic story of a woman who made her own path, and set the standard for a generation of artists who followed in her footsteps. (publisher)

Marcus, Greil. “Ripped to shreds”, Ranters & crowd pleasers: Punk in pop music, 1977–92, ed. by Greil Marcus. (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 105–108. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-16366]

A discussion of Lester Bangs’s book Blondie, (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447), published in Rolling stone, 24 July 1980. In the book, Bangs, a quickie-band-bio gun for hire, uses the opportunity to deconstruct the band—as well as the marketing of Deborah Harry as a sexed-up ice-queen bombshell—while lending depth to any analysis or appreciation of Blondie to follow. One of his key points is that the erstwhile punk and new wave band blazed new trails in emotional ambivalence—or, as he eventually argues—total lack of emotional content. Bangs writes that “what emotions do surface occasionally, what obsessions and lusts, are invariably almost immediately gutted by fusillades of irony, sarcasm, camp, what have you, ending up buried”. Bangs’s book is as much a treatise on postmodernist art as a simple band biography. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Metz, Allan, ed. Blondie, from punk to the present: A pictorial history. Musical legacy 1 (Springfield: Musical Legacy, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12082]

Needs, Kris and Dick Porter. Blondie: Parallel lives (London: Omnibus, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-26761]

Drawing upon extensive new firsthand interview material from Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and many other significant players in the band’s long history, plus a sizable archive of personal materials and unpublished interviews, this book is the definitive eye-witness account of the group’s long and often tumultuous existence. Beginning with the band members’ childhoods, backgrounds, and influences, the book is also an evocative homage to the unique New York scenes of the 1970s—CBGB, punk rock, disco, hip hop—that found their way into Blondie’s music. It charts the development of Blondie to their massive popular success and eventual break up. It also details how Debbie Harry set her career aside to nurse Stein through a debilitating and life-threatening genetic disease. It recounts the group’s 1997 reformation, subsequent renaissance with their No exit album, the controversies surrounding the 2006 induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ending in the present with the release of Panic of girls. (publisher)

Peraino, Judith A. “‘Rip her to shreds’: Women’s music according to a butch-femme aesthetic”, repercussions 1/1 (spring 1992) 19–47. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 1992-4598]

The butch-femme aesthetic allows women to explore traditional gender roles and provides an alternative to the patriarchal basis of previous formulations of women’s music. Phranc, the folk singer, and Deborah Harry, the lead singer of the defunct rock group Blondie, consciously use irony and gender conflation in their performances, but present opposite extremes in musical style and in the portrayal of femininity. (Brian Robison)

Stein, Chris. Negative: Me, Blondie, and the advent of punk (New York: Rizzoli, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2014-21260]

On the occasion of Blondie’s 40th anniversary, Chris Stein shares his iconic and mostly unpublished photographs of Debbie Harry and the cool creatures of the 1970s and ’80s New York rock scene. While a student at the School of Visual Arts, the author photographed the downtown New York scene of the early ’70s, where he met Deborah Harry and co-founded Blondie. Their blend of punk, dance, and hip hop spawned a totally new sound, and Stein’s photographs helped establish Harry as an international fashion and music icon. In photos and stories, this book provides a snapshot of the period before and during Blondie’s rise, through photos and annotations, by someone who was part of and who helped shape the early punk music scene—at CBGB, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the early Bowery. Stars such as David Bowie, the Ramones, Joan Jett, and Iggy Pop were part of Stein’s world, as were downtown characters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hell, Stephen Sprouse, Anya Phillips, Divine, and others. As captured by one of its central artists and instigators, and designed by Shepard Fairey, this book is a celebration of the new wave and punk scenes, whose influence on music and fashion is just as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

_____. Point of view: Me, New York City, and the punk scene (New York: Rizzoli, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-50487]

A new collection of unseen photographs of New York City’s 1970s punk heyday, by one of the icons of the city’s golden age of music, Blondie’s Chris Stein. For the duration of the 1970s—from his days as a student at the School of Visual Arts through the foundation of the era-defining band Blondie and his subsequent reign as epicenter of punk’s golden age—Chris Stein kept an unrivaled photographic record of the downtown New York City scene. Following in the footsteps of his previous book Negative, this new book presents a more personal and more visceral collection of Stein’s photographs of the era. The images presented here take readers from self-portraits in his run-down East-Village apartment to candid photographs of pop-cultural icons of the time and evocative shots of New York City streetscapes in all their most longed-for romance and dereliction. An eclectic cast of cultural characters—from William Burroughs to Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol to Iggy Pop—appear as they were in the day, juxtaposed with children playing hopscotch on torn-down blocks, riding the graffiti-ridden subway, or cruising the burgeoning clubs of the Bowery. (publisher)

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Django Reinhardt and U.S. jazz

 

While he was perhaps the most famous and adept practitioner of American jazz in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, the Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt was an outsider—both culturally and geographically—to the U.S. jazz scene. For this reason, scholars have had difficulty placing him securely in American jazz history.

Reinhardt only visited the U.S. once, in 1946, as a guest of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A recording made during that tour, A blues riff, presents a complex musical negotiation of contrasting musical and cultural values. What is heard in this performance is not just a debate over what notes to play when, but over what the philosopher Henri Lefebvre called representational spaces. The task of locating Reinhardt in jazz history requires a new theoretical appreciation for the material importance of space and place in the shaping of musical performance.

This according to “Negotiating A blues riff: Listening for Django Reinhardt’s place in American jazz” by Andrew Berish (Jazz perspectives III/3 [December 2009] pp. 233–64).

Today is Reinhardt’s 110th birthday!

Above, Reinhardt in 1946, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.

Related article: Grappelli, South, and Reinhardt play Bach

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