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Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 06/05/2024.


by Ian Mann

May 12, 2024

Ian Mann enjoys the final day of the 2024 Cheltenham Jazz Festival and performances by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Clare Teal Seven, UB40, corto.alto and Gregory Porter.

Photograph of corto.alto by Tim Dickeson


MONDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 06/05/2024


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO,
BIG TOP

With no jazz programme at the Parabola Arts Centre (PAC) on Bank Holiday Monday I investigated a number of shows at the Big Top and Jazz Arena venues, all very enjoyable but not, strictly speaking,  always jazz.

First up was the extraordinary South African male accapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala and still going strong sixty four years later!

Five time Grammy Award winners the group really became familiar to white audiences through their involvement on Paul Simon’s seminal 1986 album “Graceland”, a life changing event for Shabalala and the other group members. They were already known internationally prior to this but the exposure provided by the phenomenally popular “Graceland” took their fame to a whole other level.

Ladysmith have certainly capitalised on the success of “Graceland” and in 2024, nearly forty years on, they remain as popular as ever. This is in part due to the quality of the group’s exciting live performances, something that we were to witness this afternoon.

Joseph Shabalala passed away in 2020 but his three sons are now the featured lead vocalists and the group sounds exactly as did in 1986. They shared the lead vocal duties around with Thamsanqa (Tommy) and Thulani handling the lion’s share of the songs.

LBM’s unique sound is rooted in Zulu culture and a style of music called Isicathamiya. Their songs feature a mix of Zulu and English language lyrics and the group continue to spread their message peace, love and harmony wherever they go.

Today’s show featured an eight man version of the group, all clad in colourful shirts, a kind of band uniform. With their dramatic hand gestures and co-ordinated dance movements they weren’t so far removed from US soul and doo-wop groups, but later on in the set their astonishingly athletic traditional Zulu dancing really did set them apart.

There may not have been any instrumentation but the sound generated by eight voices was remarkably full and included examples of vocal percussion, the kind of vocal tics and clicks with which listeners to “Graceland” will already be familiar.

The songs included tributes to Joseph Shabalala and Nelson Mandela alongside political material such as “Down the Mines” and “Tough Times”, the latter carrying a message of hope and defiance - “Tough Times Never Last, Strong People Do”. Other homilies included “The Stronger The Roots, The Stronger The Tree” and “Music Knows No Boundaries”, both universal truths. But there were lighter moments too, such as the playful and flirtatious “Hey Beautiful Girl”.

“Homeless”, the song from “Graceland” co-written by Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala was inevitably given an airing but it wasn’t the focal point of the set and didn’t represent some kind of grand finale.

That was to come with a song that saw all the members of the group dancing with great exuberance and stepping out from the chorus line to deliver their individual party pieces. It was athletic, it was colourful, it was fun.

Along the way the group encouraged a little audience participation, urging the crowd to clap along, although singing along in Zulu didn’t prove to be quite so easy.

The capacity crowd in the huge Big Top absolutely loved their energy, their joyousness, their athleticism, their humour, their colourful outfits and most of all their singing. And make no mistake the singing was marvellous, the harmonies tight and distinctive, the lead vocals wonderfully assured and confident.

The deserved encore summed the group’s ethos up perfectly, “I have joy, peace and happiness in my soul”, qualities that also seemed to infuse their audience as the crowd gave the group a warm ovation.

This was a hugely entertaining show and I very much enjoyed it, although I don’t know whether I could listen to the whole of one of the group’s albums at home. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is very much a live music experience, and one that I’m glad to have enjoyed.

CLARE TEAL SEVEN,
JAZZ ARENA

Clare Teal – lead vocals, Jim Tomlinson – piano, vocals, Freddie Gavita – trumpet, Chris Maddock – tenor sax, clarinet, Dave Archer – guitar, Simon Little – double bass, vocals, Will Cleasby – drums, vocals

Vocalist Clare Teal is one of the most popular figures in British jazz, a position she has earned via her recordings, her exciting live performances and her work as a broadcaster on BBC Radio 2 and Jazz FM.

The group that she brought to a packed Jazz Arena featured some of the UK’s leading instrumentalists and represented a true all star line up. The chosen material harked back to the swing era, reflecting Teal’s interest in the music of that period.

Yorkshire born Teal is an engaging performer with a ready line in salty, self deprecating, Northern wit. She loves to exchange banter with both the audience and her band mates while her on stage confidence has no doubt been further honed by her broadcasting experience.

She’s also a terrific singer, technically accomplished and with a powerful and expressive voice. Her bravura scat vocal episodes revealed that she is also an excellent improviser.

Cleasby’s drums introduced the high energy opener “Messin’ With Fire”, with Maddock soloing on clarinet and Gavita on trumpet It also featured the first of several dynamic scatting excursions from the leader.

Little was featured on double bass and backing vocals on a similarly upbeat “Summer Samba”, with Maddock switching instruments to solo on tenor sax.

Maddock also featured on tenor on “Teardrops From My Eyes” while Teal’s powerful and confident vocal suggested that she would be equally at home fronting a genuine big band. She has also led her own Mini Big Band and once presented Big Band Special on BBC Radio 2.

Teal’s repertoire embraces a variety of songs sourced from musical areas outside of the ‘Great American Songbook’. One such was “A Man With A Million Dollars”, written by the blind accordionist and vocalist Joe Mooney. Witty, wordy lyrics combined with solos from Maddock on tenor sax and Dave Archer on guitar. Both Archer and Cleasby are associated with Cheltenham Jazz Festival favourites Kansas Smitty’s.

“Dream a Little Dream of Me” returned us to more conventional ‘Songbook’ territory and saw trumpet soloist Gavita, a bandleader in his own right, playing both with and without the mute.

Teal sang convincingly in both Portuguese and English on Jobim’s “Wave”, with Little and Watson adding backing vocals. Watson was also featured on the Arena’s handsome Yamaha grand piano.

Teal’s love for the music of Peggy Lee is well known and in 2020 she issued the digital album
“Peggy Ala Me! One Hundred Years of Peggy Lee”, a compilation of Lee associated tunes that had previously appeared on Teal’s earlier releases. From that recording came “It’s A Good Day”, which saw Teal entering into a dizzying series of fast paced scat vocal exchanges with the horns. The piece also included instrumental solos from Maddock on clarinet and Archer on guitar.

A rare original “The Road Less Travelled” first appeared on Teal’s 2003 album of the same name and was originally performed as a duet with Jamie Cullum. There was no sign of Cullum today but Teal acquitted herself admirably on her own with the aid of fluent instrumental solos from Gavita on trumpet, Maddock on tenor and a closing drum feature from Cleasby, the young musician who had been the butt of many of Teal’s jokes.

Teal likes to look outside the immediate jazz canon for songs, as evidenced by “Tainted Love”, which responded well to a swing jazz treatment. Introduced by Little at the bass the piece also included a sparkling piano solo from Watson, who also seemed to be functioning as Teal’s musical director.

“Aquarela do Brasil” featured some virtuoso Django Reinhardt style guitar from Archer and the pianist was also involved in a series of lively musical exchanges with pianist Watson.

The performance concluded with a typically breezy rendition of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” with Teal skilfully working the crowd and scatting joyously as she shared the solos with Watson on piano and Maddock on tenor. Cleasby rounded things off with another drum feature.

The audience loved Teal and her band and the inevitable encore proved to be a blues, the title of which eluded me, but which was distinguished by Teal’s soulful vocal and Archer’s guitar solo.

This was an entertaining performance that featured first rate singing and playing from one of he UK’s leading jazz vocalists and an all star band. Teal is an artist who has established a large and loyal following and her many fans absolutely loved this show. It was all a bit too mainstream for my personal tastes, but I could appreciate the skill and craft that went into it and could readily understand Teal’s appeal to mainstream jazz listeners.


UB40
BIG TOP

Robin Campbell – lead guitar, vocals, keyboards,  Matt Doyle – lead vocals, guitar, Earl Falconer – electric bass, Norma Lamont Hassan – percussion, vocals, Laurence Parry – trumpet, Ian Thompson – tenor sax, keyboards, Martin Meredith – alto sax, keyboards, Jahred Gordon – keyboards, Gilly G – MC, vocals, Matt Campbell – backing vocals, Jimmy Brown – drums

The current line up of UB40 features two saxophonists – but does that make them a jazz act? Discuss.

Anyway it seemed to be enough to get them on the bill at Cheltenham Jazz Festival where they played to a delighted audience in a sold out Big Top.

I was a big fan of the group in its early days and particularly of the first two albums, “Signing Off” (1980) and “Present Arms” (1981), and also the latter’s heavier, darker companion “Present Arms in Dub”.

Those early records featured a combination of strong melodies and grooves combined with intelligent, socially conscious lyrics. Emerging in Birmingham in the wake of punk this mixed race band addressed social and political issues head on, but did so in a style that made people dance as well as think. It’s a winning combination, but one that’s hard to achieve and even harder to maintain.

The first “Labour of Love” album from 1983, a set of covers of popular Jamaican reggae hits, seemed like a good idea at the time but it marked the end of the band as a serious political force. 

Of course it sold by the bucket load and there have now been four volumes of “Labour of Love”, but the rest of the 1980s saw the band gradually toning down the political content and filing off those rough, dubby musical edges. As it all became more slick and polished I began to lose interest and for me UB40 ultimately became ‘just another pop group’.

For all that I do recall seeing UB40 at the cavernous NEC venue in Birmingham during the 1980s and still enjoying them, although I gave up on stadium and arena rock altogether not long afterwards.

Even as the band’s recordings became less and less relevant UB40 have still retained their reputation as an exciting and entertaining live act and they continue to plough their distinctive pop /  reggae furrow, even after weathering several personnel changes, including the departure of original lead vocalist Ali Campbell.

The current line up of the band, as listed above, still includes several founder members, among them Ali’s brother Robin Campbell, now effectively the bandleader. New lead singer Matt Doyle, who also plays some guitar, is a technically accomplished vocalist and an increasingly confident front man. He also sounds uncannily like Ali Campbell. I was very impressed with him.

Today UB40 quickly got me on side with a salvo of songs from their early 80’s hey day. They took to the stage to the sound to a recorded, muezzin like wail as drummer Jimmy Brown set up a groove and the rest of the band filed on, launching into “So Here I Am” from their 1982 album “UB44”.

“Sing Our Own Song”, from 1986 was written in support of the black population of South Africa towards the end of the apartheid era.

A set highlights for me was “One In Ten”, an overtly political song that touched a nerve and managed to storm the pop charts, that “dancing and thinking” combination again.

Even better was the segue of “Tyler” and “King”, two politically charged songs from the band’s debut album “Signing Off”, a recording that I still consider to be the group’s high water mark.

For me it also represented the best moment of this gig as “Lonely Girl” signalled a change to more pop orientated material. This was followed by the 1993 single “Bring Me Your Cup”, which has become a bit of a cult favourite among UB40 fans.

From the first “Labour of Love” album the hit “Cherry Oh Baby” brought the crowd to their feet, where they stayed for the rest of the set. Next up was the group’s reggae version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, which the group originally recorded with guest vocalist Robert Palmer.

There was a nod to the present day with “Gimme Some Kinda Sign”, the lead single from the new album “UB45”. But even this is a cover of a song dating back to the 1960s, although the band do make it their own via the toasting of Gilly G.

Percussionist Norman Lamont Hassan came to the front of the stage to handle the lead vocals on “Johnny Too Bad”, whipping up the crowd to sing along to a song first covered by UB40 on the original “Labour of Love” album.

Ant it was that album that spawned the inevitable “Red, Red Wine”, another audience sing-along further enlivened by Gilly’s toasting. The crowd absolutely loved this and it came as no surprise that this was to be the final number of the set.

It was also no surprise that the band came back for a three song encore. The foghorn blasts of the twin saxes introduced “Food For Thought”, an implicitly political anthem written about famine in Africa and the response of the West. This was another of my personal favourites from the “Signing Off” album.

That song and the following “Kingston Town” were dedicated by Robin Campbell, the band’s spokesman, to the memory of the late Brian Travers, saxophonist, founder member and the author of many of the band’s early, cutting edge lyrics.

I would have been happy for them to stop there. A reggae-fied version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” signified the band’s decline into crowd pleasing pop.

Nevertheless I enjoyed this well crafted performance. This is a tightly drilled band who have all become highly competent musicians and in new singer Matt Doyle they have a man who is more than capable of fronting the much loved institution that is UB40. The fans absolutely loved and I’m sure that for many of them the pop hits represented the highlights.

But for me it was the darker edged, socially conscience songs from the band’s early days that really hit the spot, but this was a performance that represented an overview of the band’s whole career. I guess I can consider myself lucky that so many of the early classics were in there.

However in these days of ‘playing the whole album’ tours it would be nice to see the band take to the stage and maybe perform the whole of “Signing Off” and “Present Arms”. Now there’s food for thought.


corto.alto
JAZZ ARENA

Liam Shortall – trombone, electric bass, electronics, Harry Weir, Mateusz Sobieski – tenor saxophones, James McKay – guitar, Alex Wesson – keyboards, Luca Pisanu- electric bass, Graham Costello – drums

Today’s ‘serious’ jazz option was corto.alto, the name adopted by the Scottish multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Liam Shortall. It’s a clever adaptation from the Spanish words for ‘short’ and ‘tall’ and although the name relates to the bandleader as an individual it’s also tempting to think of it as the name of Shortall’s group.

Best known as a trombonist Shortall appeared at the 2022 Cheltenham Jazz Festival as part of drummer Graham Costello’s STRATA group at the PAC. That was a group that contained Fergus McCreadie, who is also the regular keyboard player for corto.alto. With McCreadie absent today and playing a concert in Zurich with his own trio Alex Wesson stepped into the breach behind the keys and acquitted himself very well.

Shortall has also featured on the Jazzmann web pages as a member of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and of the young, contemporary big band Fat Suit (named because they’re ‘a big outfit’). He appears on Fat Suit’s impressive 2016 album “Atlas” and its similarly accomplished follow up “Waifs and Strays” (2019).  The STRATA live performance and both of these Fat Suit recordings are reviewed elsewhere on this site.

To date corto.alto has released the EP “Not For Now” (2021) and the full length album “Bad With Names” (2023) and today’s set included material from both recordings in addition to some as yet unrecorded items.

Championed by Gilles Peterson corto.alto’s music has been described as embracing  “hip-hop, broken beat, electronica, dub and punk”. But for all this it’s still all instrumental music that very much remains recognisable as jazz.

Rather like the ‘piano trio’ GoGo Penguin corto.alto takes the beats of contemporary electronic and dance music and transpose them into a more obviously jazz setting. In corto.alto, the band, much of the responsibility for this rests with hyper-active drummer Graham Costello, who looked to be playing the same drum kit that Jeremiah Collier had deployed the previous evening with trumpeter Theo Croker. Like Collier Costello was ‘Mr. Perpetual Motion’, a whirlwind of activity who really drove the band. His knowledge of hip-hop and broken beat rhythms found expression via his bass drum. Initially I was positioned five rows from the front on Costello’s side of the stage and the relentless thump of that bass drum often threatened to drown out the other members of the group. This guy must have the strongest calf muscles in jazz! At a suitable break in the programme I moved back to the raked seating towards the rear of the Arena where the sound balance was much better, allowing me to enjoy the music even more.

Opener “BWN” (the acronym for “Bad With Names”) began with Shortall blowing trombone over the sound of his self generated electronics. As the rest of the band joined in the opening blast from the unusual front line of two tenor saxes plus trombone was more than a match for UB40’s horn section, and the comparison didn’t end there with the addition of dubby electronics. But this was still emphatically jazz, as evidenced by the fluent and powerful solos from Weir on tenor and Shortall on trombone.

As the band played the sound of rain drumming on the roof of the tent could be heard, although at first I thought the noise might be being electronically generated from the stage. “We’ve brought Glasgow with us” observed Shortall as he introduced the next piece “xoxoxo”, a tune sourced from the “Bad With Names” album. This saw the band’s other saxophonist, the shades wearing Sobieski, in the spotlight as he delivered his first solo of the evening. The use of the two tenors obviously evoked comparisons with Polar Bear and even Led Bib. I’d surmise that both of these acts might have represented influences for Shortall. Guitarist James McKay was also featured and the piece concluded with a bass and drum dialogue between Pisanu and Costello, this evolving into a full on (in every sense of the phrase) solo from the indefatigable drummer.

Costello’s drum feature represented the bridge into “Long Days”, which embraced more foghorn like double sax blasting and an expansive and impassioned tenor solo from Harry Weir, this evolving into a dialogue with Costello’s drums as the rest of the band dropped out. Shortall’s trombone solo marked the transition into “Latency” as the band continued to segue numbers together. Again this developed into a ‘two hander’ as the leader traded blows with Costello. This piece also featured an effective keyboard solo from dep Alex Wesson.

Costello’s drums introduced “Mechanisms”, another tune from “Bad With Names”. Guitar and bass were added, both utilising electronic effects. The introduction of Shortall, Weir and Sobieski added considerable heft before McKay delivered an FX drenched guitar solo with the group now in traditional power trio mode.

Shortall moved to electric bass for “Chubby” as Pisanu vacated the stage, followed by Weir and McKay. This piece was played by a quartet of bass, keys, drums and tenor sax and incorporated complex math-rock style riffs and rhythms and a Sobieski tenor solo.

“Dust” saw McKay return as Shortall continued on bass and Sobieski continued to feature as the primary soloist.

The full septet was restored for “Not Now” and following his absence Pisanu was invited to introduce the piece with an extended unaccompanied electric bass feature, his playing languid, liquid and utterly beguiling. Even Costello sat back to admire it. When the rest of the band eventually kicked in the music was like a burst of sunshine, despite the sound of the rain still drumming on the roof.

With it mix of acoustic and electronic beats, jazz chops and punk attitude the music of corto.alto has acquired something of a cult following and the group plays rock and dance clubs in addition to more conventional jazz venues. It’s earned the group a younger than usual following and many of those fans were in attendance today as part of a pleasingly large turnout at the Jazz Arena.

As the last act of the day corto.alto was able to play a deserved encore with “Slope” featuring a trombone solo from Shorter prior to series of fiery sax exchanges as Weir and Sobieski also traded solos before eventually handing back to the leader.

I really enjoyed this set from corto.alto and it represented my personal ‘gig of the day’. My thanks to Liam for speaking with me after the show and for filling in some missing details with regard to the set list. He sold out of CDs (they’d all gone by the time I spoke to him) and also shifted a lot of vinyl, all signs of a highly successful gig. corto.alto made a lot of new friends with this performance and this is an act that I would certainly be happy to see again.


GREGORY PORTER,
BIG TOP

Gregory Porter – vocals, Chip Crawford – piano, keyboard, Jamal Nichols- double bass, electric bass, Emanuel Harrold – drums, The Kingdom Ensemble conducted by Troy Miller

Jazz / soul vocalist Gregory Porter is one of the few jazz performers that the proverbial ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ has actually heard of.

In jazz terms Porter is a mega-star who has sold a phenomenal number of albums. He’s also a refreshingly down to earth figure who happily strolls around Cheltenham without an entourage and who can often be seen checking out the performances of his fellow musicians. Only the previous evening I spotted him in the audience at the Jazz Arena enjoying the music of trumpeter Theo Croker.

Porter has been a regular at Cheltenham for more than a decade but this was the first opportunity that I had had to see him perform live. He’s a hugely popular artist with audiences and this was the first time that his gig hadn’t sold out prior to my applying for press tickets. I like to see the full programme before committing myself to any specific event.

Porter’s show may not have sold out quite as quickly as usual but the Big Top was still full for a performance that saw Porter fronting his regular quartet consisting of pianist chip Crawford, bassist Jamal Nichols and drummer Emanuel Harold. There was also a nine piece string orchestra, the Kingdom Ensemble, directed by Troy Miller, who some readers might also remember as a highly accomplished jazz drummer.

Porter’s rich baritone voice with its smooth, honeyed tones, allied to his genial personality, has made him a star and tonight’s show was a highly polished performance that saw him making ‘the grand entrance’ to sing the first song of the set, “If Love is Overrated”. Porter writes the majority of his material and this was also a fine example of his talents as a songwriter.  His songs hark back to the Golden Age of the ‘Great American Songbook’ but are also influenced by soul and gospel music, but with lyrics written from a very modern perspective.

“I might have to change my set list” Porter remarked as the rain continued to beat on the roof of the Big Top, then briefly singing “A Rainy Night in Cheltenham” to the audience’s amusement.

The next full song, the dramatic “Revival”, co-written by Porter, Miller and Oli Rockberger introduced a gospel element to the proceedings and saw Nichols moving to electric bass.

“Holding On” saw Crawford doubling on Rhodes. The pianist was very much the group’s ‘wild card’, his mercurial solos were played with a flamboyance and intensity that very much belied his somewhat professorial appearance. Suitable examples followed on “Merry Go Round” and an urgent version of audience favourite “Hey Laura”, with the sound of Nichols’ double bass also prominent in the arrangement.

Crawford was also featured on “Liquid Spirit”, the title track of Porter’s third album from 2013. Another crowd favourite, and a song with a strong gospel flavour reflecting Porter’s roots in the church, this saw the singer encouraging the audience to clap along. They responded enthusiastically.

“Water Under Bridges” was then performed as a voice and piano duet as Porter calmed the crowd, only to whip them up again with the next sequence. An extended solo double bass intro from the excellent Nichols’ culminated with him picking out the familiar opening riff to The Temptations song “My Girl”, cue more audience singing along. This was segued with another Temps classic, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”.

A stunning version of “Musical Genocide” included Crawford’s most audacious solo yet, almost extending into Cecil Taylor territory.

Porter’s personalised version of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands”  also referenced “Nature Boy” and also acknowledged the influence of jazz greats Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

Mister Holland” and an emotive “No Love Dying” rounded off the set, the latter featuring Nichols soloing on electric bass.

Porter left the band to play on as he made the ‘grand exit’ only to return for the deserved encore “You Can Join My Band”.

Even though his music is a bit too mainstream for my personal jazz tastes I thoroughly enjoyed this show and was pleased that I had finally experienced a Gregory Porter live performance. The comforting warmth of both his voice and his personality has made Porter an audience favourite and he really does come across as a thoroughly decent and genuinely humble human being, despite his enormous talent as both a singer and a songwriter.

The members of his band also impressed. Crawford was a highly individual soloist while Nichols and Harrold were right on the money, with Nichols also taking a couple of impressive solos. It was my second sighting of the bassist during the Festival following his brief slot ‘sitting in’ with saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s band on Saturday.

Miller and The Kingdom Ensemble added lush colours and texture to the arrangements, but the individual musicians didn’t receive a name-check.


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

Despite being blighted by some terrible weather on the Friday and Monday evenings Cheltenham Festival again delivered, and to be fair the shone actually shone on the Saturday and Sunday, and much of Monday, attracting large crowds to the Festival site in Montpellier Gardens.

The programme again combined the popular with the cutting edge, and even if some events aren’t strictly speaking really jazz the scheduling is admirably wide ranging and varied.

The big American jazz names Brad Mehldau, Lakecia Benjamin and Theo Croker all delivered the goods while UK highlights included Sultan Stevenson, Nikki Yeoh with NYJO, David Ola and the Lucumi Project, Sam Eastmond and John Zorn’s Bagatelles and corto.alto.

For me the most heartening aspect was that the ‘cutting edge’ side of the programme at the Parabola Arts Centre seems set to continue and would appear to be in safe hands with Alexandria Carr taking over from Tony Dudley-Evans, who continued to be involved for this year at least. Thank you Tony for everything that you’ve done for Cheltenham Jazz Festival over the years. The financial support for the PAC programme from Longrow Capital is also greatly appreciated.

The PAC is certainly my favourite Festival venue, and although I do like to check out other events it’s the PAC programme and its commitment to new and experimental music that really helps to make Cheltenham Jazz Festival special. I’m looking forward to 2025 already.

Finally my thanks to photographer Tim Dickeson for allowing me to illustrate these features with his excellent images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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