Antonio Carlos Jobim once said, “Brazil is not for beginners.” Throughout my visit to Rio de Janeiro during February for Carnaval ‘98, I would remember this wry admonition many times. Rio has always been challenging for tourists, even for those of us who are not beginners and who love it there, and this is certainly true now. Every year there are tropical rains in January and February, and portions of a favela (shanty town) or two always slide off the side of a mountain. This year, there were incredible January rains, accredited to El Niño, and Rio’s already inadequate storm sewers never recovered. By February, every time there was a heavy rain, many areas became flooded with knee-deep water, and traffic stopped for hours. During the week before carnaval, this happened three times. On one occasion, I was trapped on a bus for almost three hours with the usual mid-day complement of passengers: businessmen, students, housewives, and people who had unadvisedly picked this day for a trip to the beach. One of these businessmen struck up a conversation with me, and upon learning that I was a North American, took it upon himself to explain how these floods were really the fault of the municipal government, and how the same bad planning was at the root of all Brazil’s urban problems. He had some training as an engineer and drew some diagrams on a sheet of paper demonstrating how the civil engineers of Rio had errored in their flood control plans. After showing me what was wrong, and lamenting the fact that any idiot could have done better, he crumpled up the paper and threw it out the window, while mumbling about the ineffective elected officials that always seemed to promise much and deliver little. In my irritation, I speculated that people might not have to leave everything up to these seemingly inept officials if they were a little more mindful of their own role in these problems. He smiled vacantly, clearly not getting my inference, and changed the subject to his favorite Motown vocal groups.
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My specific reason for being in Rio at this time was to play for the bateria (percussion section) of one of the huge groups that parades during Carnaval — the pre-lenten celebration that takes place everywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. An invitation had been issued through a friend, and for me, a percussionist and lover of Brazilian culture and music, the idea of passing it up was unthinkable. I had visited Rio a few times in the past, and had immediately fallen in love with this marvelous city, challenges and all. For me, Rio has always been magic; the amazing and unexpected have awaited me at each of my visits there.
Much has been said about Rio being the embodiment of urban decay. The type of organized government that begets steady, solid infrastructure has never endured in Brazil for a sufficient length of time. Most efforts at urban development have been of a quick-fix nature, rather than having long-term vision. Many of the most beautiful buildings in the old center of town were torn down before the turn of the century in an ill-conceived plan to create a central corridor that would rival that of Buenos Aires. This is not to say that there have never been people of vision in Rio. Much of the vegetation on the hills above the Tijuca neighborhood had been clearcut for sugar cane plantations, but the emperor Dom Pedro had the area reforested, and it is now the site of the Floresta da Tijuca, the largest and one of the most beautiful urban forests in the world.
If Paris is the capitol of romance, then Rio must be the capitol of joy. For those who understand this, and are able to look beyond the decay to the natural splendor here, Rio is the most beautiful city in the world. This joy of life creates an energy that is palpable. To begin to understand this, one only needs to witness an exchange between a newspaper vendor and a familiar customer. First, there is the abraço (embrace), or if the transaction is between a man and a woman, the beijinho (kiss on each cheek). Then a little bate papo (lively small talk sprinkled with good humor). The transaction is concluded with more kisses or hugs followed by the seasonal farewell wish, “Bom carnaval.” If one can imagine ten million people interacting this way, it’s not difficult to understand how addictive all this is to those of a similar nature.
It’s no wonder that such a place gave birth to carnaval. For the wealthy, carnaval is little more than a show, experienced in the way that people who seldom set foot in a church celebrate Easter. For Brazil’s working poor, however, carnaval is a celebration of the triumph of human spirit over one’s circumstances. It has been called “the greatest show on earth,” but it’s much more than that. It’s truly a transformation, where an entire country is one vast celebration, and participants commemorate however they choose.
Carnaval season begins after Reveillon, Brazil’s New Year’s celebration, and in Rio, kicks into high gear late in January on “Dia de São Sebastião,” the day of Saint Sebastion, patron saint of Rio de Janeiro. Every year, before Christmas, the top groups belonging to the Grupo Especial (Special Group) record their sambas de enredo (theme songs) for the year at an outdoor theater in the south of Rio. These recordings, which are sold as CD’s and cassette tapes, are heard everywhere, blaring from speaker systems outside of record stores, and even ambient music systems in shopping malls and grocery stores.
Carnaval proper begins on the Friday afternoon before Lent. During this time, there are parades - some planned, some spontaneous - in every part of Rio. It seems that anywhere there is a small plaza, a stage is set up, and bands and DJ’s play music until the wee hours. When one feels that he has exhausted the possibilities of one of these street parties, he only has to move on to the next one, following the noise and crowds moving down the street. This scene is repeated in every city, town and village in the country.
But the centerpiece of Carnaval in Rio is the Sambódromo, where the grand parades take place. This huge concrete edifice is located near the old Praça Onze where the first real parades began near the turn of the century. It was designed in 1983 by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect responsible for the design of Brasilia (the capital of Brazil, inaugurated in 1960.) Interestingly, the Sambódromo serves as an elementary school the rest of the year. Officially named the “Passarela de Samba,” it is always referred to as the “Sambódromo” (samba-dervish) or “Sambadrome” by English speaking people. It is so-called, not only for the way the paraders dance there, but in the rapid way it was built, reaching completion in a mere 117 days. It seats 80,000 people and is about a kilometer long. There are speaker embankments at regular intervals located along the length of the passageway, to facilitate hearing the singers and instrumentalists of the groups parading. It ends at the “Praça Apoteose” (Apotheosis Plaza), where the famous arch is. This towering 3-legged structure exemplifies the genius of Niemeyer. It suggests, in a remarkably simple, stately way, the grace of feminine hips dancing the samba.
The parades begin on Friday evening with the lesser groups. These are usually groups that have been formed in recent years that are working their way up the hierarchy. Saturday night is for Grupo A, the groups trying to get into the top division, and the climax is reached on Sunday and Monday nights when the 14 groups in the Special Group parade, 7 each night, each for 80 minutes.
The groups are called escolas de samba (samba schools.) The name began euphemistically, as the only places large enough for the early groups to rehearse were schoolyards. The story goes that the participants would say, “I’m going to school tonight,” which might have been interpreted by one’s wife as, “I’m getting together with my ne’er-do-well friends for samba, drinking, and debauchery, in that order.” The story may be apocryphal, as it’s apparent that plenty of work got done. Today, there are 66 registered samba schools in Rio alone. The smaller groups will have 1000 members, while the largest contain over 5000.
I had been invited to play with the percussion section of the Imperio Serrano escola de samba. Imperio Serrano is one of the most venerable of all the escolas, referred to as one of the quatro grandes (big four) that have dominated carnaval for 50 years or more. Its percussion section has won the placa (plaque) for best percussion section more than any other school. This samba school has an interesting history, both of its inception, and its sad demotion after last year’s parade. (It was one of the two lowest scoring groups in the Special Group, therefore it descended into Grupo A for the 1998 parade.)
G.R.E.S. Imperio Serrano (Grémio Recreativo Escola de Samba—Social Society Samba School – the official designation of the largest samba schools in Rio) is one of the great schools of Madureira, a neighborhood known to be one of the cradles of samba. This working class neighborhood, over an hour by car distant from the chic beachfront neighborhoods in the Zona Sul (southern zone,) also is the home of G.R.E.S. Portela and G.R.E.S. Tradição, two other formidable schools. Rio is vast; therefore only a fraction of the city’s neighborhoods have even one great escola. Madureira has three.
The pace of life in Madureira, as in other working-class neighborhoods, is very different from that of the southern zone. The laborers, who don’t get off work until well into the evening, must then travel by train or bus for two hours or more to their apartments. In the morning, they must arise very early to return to their jobs, so there isn’t much opportunity for socializing during the week. On Friday nights, upon completion of their workday, they hurry home, go to bed and sleep until after midnight. By that time, the neighborhood has transformed itself into a bazaar of food and beverage stalls, and the streets are teaming with life. People make their way to their favorite quadra (samba school headquarters) where a party of a thousand or so revelers has assembled to do some serious dancing to the sounds of a hundred expert percussionists accompanying the singers and other instrumentalists of the samba school. The party lasts until about 5 a.m.
The Imperio Serrano samba school was born out of the frustration of key players in an older samba school - Prazer da Serrinha (Pleasure of Serrinha - Serrinha being the name of a favela in Madureira.) The president of Prazer da Serrinha, Alfredo Costa, was a very autocratic leader, who thought nothing of making sudden, arbitrary changes. In 1946, the samba schools were expected to have enredos commemorating the end of World War II, as Brazil was very proud to have been one of the only Latin American countries to have forces involved in the war. Silas de Oliveira, the great sambista from Serrinha wrote “Conferencia de São Francisco” (Conference of San Francisco), which became the most popular enredo of the season. Prazer da Serrinha was the odds-on favorite to be the champion of 1946. At the last minute, however, Seu Alfredo (as Costa was known) demanded that a different, older samba, which happened to be his favorite, be played instead. The school placed eleventh. This proved to be the last straw, as disgruntled artists and musicians met at the house of Dona Eulalia (still a pillar in the community and known as the god-mother of Imperio Serrano) and formed Imperio Serrano. Prazer da Serrinha quickly faded into oblivion.
Although, in later years, Imperio Serrano hasn’t been one of the wealthier schools, its membership is fiercely loyal. While people in other schools might switch schools if rehearsals become more convenient, or simply through the desire to try something different, the members of Imperio feel that they are members for life, and can’t imagine ever parading with another school. This loyalty was tested in 1997, when a situation occurred not unlike the one which gave birth to the school. In 1996, the wealthy businessman Beto Carreiro approached the president of Imperio Serrano with the proposal that Carreiro’s amusement park, located in Santa Caterina (a seaside resort community in the south of Brazil) be used as the enredo for 1997. In return, he would basically underwrite Imperio’s parade that year. This was very enticing, as the money needed to pay for these opulent parades had always been an issue. Raising money had become even more of a challenge in recent years, as one of the principle means of financing carnaval had dried up with the shutting down of Rio’s numbers racket—the jogo do bicho (“animal game,” so-called because it involved matching pictures of animals). Overlooked by the authorities because it was felt to be benign, this illegal lottery flourished for years. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in it, and some of the profits were diverted to the escolas. However, the brokers who financed this lottery were anything but benign. Much of the money was invested in the burgeoning drug trade, and these people became incredibly powerful, with armament superior to that of the police. In a courageous move which imperiled her life, a court justice ordered the lottery closed, and the bicheiros (as the brokers were called) were arrested. The less moneyed escolas, Imperio Serrano among them, suffered the greatest from this, and financing the big parade became a scramble to search for investors. However, each escola’s enredo is supposed to portray Brazilian culture or history, not trivialize it. Not surprisingly, several board members were horrified when they heard of these plans to pay homage to an amusement park. In addition, some of the floats would have clearly visible names of commercial sponsors - a carnaval first. Rachel Valença, a noted writer and journalist who plays in the percussion section of the escola (and my sponsor), was quoted by the newspaper O Dia as saying that the escola would place so low, it would move to the second division. For these remarks, she was threatened, then forbidden to speak to the press by the president of the escola. In a later article by the Jornal do Brasil about dissent within the escola, all Ms. Valença could say was that she was forbidden from making any further comments. For this, she was removed from the percussion section for the 1997 parade. Her words, however, proved to be prophetic; the judges were also disgusted with this blatant commercialism, and the scores bore this out - Imperio lost its position in the first division. In spite of this, the percussion section won its fifth placa - no mean feat in light of the adversity they faced.
During my first few days in Rio, I had trouble getting in touch with anyone with whom I needed to contact. I needed to talk to my sponsor with the escola, as well as musicians and other friends that I was eager to see. Where was everyone? By the end of the week I was frantic. It seemed as if my worst nightmare, that this was all going to degenerate into nothing more than an idle, beachfront vacation, was being realized. But Rio vibrates at a different frequency than the U.S. I just needed to recalibrate myself to their settings, and by the next day, when everything needed to fall into place, it did.
What an emotional experience my first rehearsal was! I was introduced to various dignitaries in the escola as a North American musician that was going to be playing with their drum section. Again and again, I was received as though I was royalty on an official visit, and they were honored to have me. I was so humbled and deeply touched by this. I kept thinking, “You people have it backwards; I’m the one who is honored to be here - you’re the royalty.” Carmen, one of my hostesses, had once brought Liza Minelli to a rehearsal at the quadra. By all accounts, Liza was very impressed, and had a great time. I have no doubts - ”Come to the Cabaret,” indeed! Finally, it was time to play with the percussion section. I had already been writing out and memorizing the paradinhas, the little breaks that are the signature of all the great drum sections, so I felt ready to go. But nothing could have prepared me for the rush of emotion that almost overwhelmed me when I actually stood in the drum section’s loft and played with 100 of my new best friends. I had heard recordings of this for years, and during my first trip to Rio had seen a scaled down rehearsal of another samba school. But now I was right in the middle of the rhythmic hurricane, not only hearing it in a completely unique way, but clearly hearing my own part meshing with the perfect samba machinery. This is it - all those years of drum lessons, bands, and later, Portuguese lessons, and immersion into all things Brazilian - this is what it all culminated in; this amazing sound that had becoming ever more synchronous with my own heartbeat. I did try to realize that this was just the beginning, that the best was yet to come, but at that moment, heaven and earth had joined forces in the quadra of Imperio Serrano, and I felt at one with the universe.
For this year’s theme, Imperio Serrano had wisely chosen a subject steeped in Brazilian culture: Mother Africa and her contribution to Brazilian art, music and culture. Their samba-enredo, “Sou Ouro Negro da Mãe Africa” (I’m Black Gold From Mother Africa), was one of the very best of any of the 66 escolas in Rio. There were three rehearsals a week: a percussion “sectional” on Wednesday nights; the full general rehearsal on Saturday nights; and a street rehearsal on Sunday evenings, where the escola would parade through the streets surrounding the quadra. I most enjoyed the general rehearsals. Like most musicians, I have always liked playing concerts, where the audience is in rapt attention. But as an American drum-set performer, my happiest young times involved playing a really good dance with a smokin’ funk band. The idea that I could make people want to move like that was intoxicating. But this was rhythm and dancing beyond anything imaginable. Surely the samba is the most remarkable dance, as well as rhythm in the world—frenetic, complex, and graceful at the same time.
After my first week of rehearsals, it was suggested by an acquaintance that I should see the rehearsal of another samba school. Her favorite was Portela, which was located in the same neighborhood as Imperio Serrano, and had a long history of tradition, only surpassed by Mangueira, the most venerable of all escolas de samba. My friend and cultural/spiritual consultant, Rosane Soarez followed up on this, and we all planned to meet at the Portela headquarters for their Friday night rehearsal. Attending a rehearsal this way allowed me to see things at a different, more casual level. I was able to walk around and freely observe the fascinating scene without the pressure of playing the rehearsal. There is almost as much action on the street outside the hall as there is inside, with many food and beverage stalls, crafts, and even small samba bars. The energy surrounding all of this is palpable, with people gathering in small groups to play samba, carrying on very lively conversations, and generally scurrying about. The headquarters for Portela is reputed to be the most beautiful of all the halls, and this must be the case. There is even a fountain softly gurgling near the entrance. Once the percussion section began to play, along with the singers and other musicians, it was impossible to resist dancing, so dance we did, until 4:30 a.m. As the revelers left the hall, many continued on to some of the bars that continued to have music and dancing until after daylight.
I continued my rehearsals with Imperio Serrano right up until carnaval. At our last rehearsal, it was time to get our costumes. After waiting in line for a very long time, even by Brazilian standards, it was apparent that something was wrong. Rachel said she had to have a word with someone and disappeared. When she came back, my worst fears were realized. They had no more costumes, and I wouldn’t be able to parade with the school. She stewed on this for a minute, and then, seeing someone, she walked over and engaged in a very animated conversation with them. Then she disappeared again. When she came back, she apologized, saying that she had gone to talk to some other officials to see if anything could be done, but it was futile. There simply were no more costumes. After a few minutes, she said we were leaving. I tried to hide my disappointment as best I could; she had done a lot for me already.
We began the drive home, and I was trying to think about the world of samba that I had experienced, and how wonderful it all had been. Not only had I experienced rhythm music on a new level, and seen the most vibrant side of Rio, but I had made friendships that I felt would endure for a long time to come. I barely noticed that we were taking a different way home, and gave it little thought; emotional rigor mortis was setting in. Suddenly, we were stopping and Rachel was parking the car. She said for me to come with her. We entered a building from which the sound of a drum section was reverberating. This wasn’t unusual; one could hear this everywhere in the city at this time. We went in, and it seemed that everyone in this place knew her. It was a smaller samba school’s last rehearsal before the parade. Rachel began talking to the master of the drum section, and he kept looking at me. Finally he smiled at me, and gave me a “thumbs-up” gesture. Smiling, Rachel approached me and said everything was set; I would parade with this samba school, Paraiso do Tuiutí. As she handed me my costume, she explained that this would be their first parade at the Sambadrome, so it was going be a big day for everyone. She couldn’t have been more right.
I arrived, as instructed, at the Sambadrome on Friday at 5:00 pm. Watching the floats pass by, and the people in their costumes caused an outburst of butterflies in my stomach. Gradually, the rest of the percussion section arrived, and we helped each other adjust our costumes. Soon, it was time to enter the staging area. I peeked around the corner and stole a glimpse of the Praça Apoteose with the famous arch. This alternately gave me goose bumps, and brought tears to my eyes. I thought, “I’ve really got to get my emotions under control! What are these people to think?” Within minutes, we were whistled to attention and began playing. This was just the warm-up, to get everyone excited and pumped up for the parade. We were whistled to halt, then the samba-enredo began. The parade was really beginning! It’s wonderful to listen to the samba-enredo being sung without percussion, because when the percussion comes in, it’s like a dam bursting. There’s nothing like that initial explosive entrance of the full percussion section—over 300 percussionists executing their parts with absolute precision. Suddenly, we were marching down the Avenida Marqués de Sapucaí to the cheers of the crowd. Seeing carnaval from this ground-zero perspective is what it must be like for an astronaut experiencing space flight for the first time, from the initial blast of ignition to the surreal feelings of weightlessness and viewing everything from an unimaginable perspective. It was amazing, but everything was going by in a blur. My attention was rightly centered on performance and execution, my arms were holding up well, but I still had half of the parade to go. Nevertheless, before I knew it, we were nearing the end. The percussion section’s job was not over, however. We still had to play the rest of the escola out of the sambadrome and down the street. By the time it was over, my arms were screaming and I was exhausted. Completely. After hugs and thank-you’s were exchanged, I weakly hailed a cab. Fortunately, the driver was very pleased to have me, still in full carnaval plumage, as his passenger and clearly relished driving me home. Once I arrived, Rui, ever the perfect host, handed me a cerveja estupidamente gelada (stupidly cold beer), and said “Você merece!” (You deserve it!)
Two days later, I returned to the Sambadrome and watched half of the schools in the Grupo Especial. As Rosane observed, how can anyone judge which is best? Clearly, some are better than others, but the very best are only different, not necessarily better. I especially enjoyed Académicos do Grande Rio. They paid homage to Luis Carlos Prestes, the founder of the Communist party in Brazil and a tireless worker for human rights. Their parade was elegant, creative, and fun, and their drum section had some of the best “breaks” I heard from any school. I’ll never forget the sight of men dressed in combat fatigues, dancing the samba on the tops of tanks which were firing plastic cannon balls as they rolled down the street, to the strains of their very tuneful samba-enredo. At the end of their parade, the crowd chanted, “É campeão! É campeão!” (You’re the champion!) They were definitely the people’s choice that night.
I was mildly surprised at the amount of nudity, or rather the lack of it, in the parades. In videos and photographs I had seen, it seemed as though this was a major aspect of carnaval. Perhaps it is to some people, and clearly the merchandisers believe it’s what their perceived customers want to see. Make no mistake, it’s all very sensuous, but partial nudity is a minor part of the spectacle. Rosane said it best: “That woman on that float has a beautiful body. It’s something she has, it’s not what she is.”
The big showdown, however was on Monday night. The pre-carnaval hype was focused on Viradouro, last year’s champion, and Mangueira, the perennial sentimental favorite. Over a decade ago, the carnavalesco Joãozinho Trinta had taken the design of carnaval parades to a new level with the Beija Flor samba school, a relative newcomer to the pre-eminent groups of the ‘80’s. Now he had done the same with Viradouro, which was a good bet to repeat their championship of last year. Mangueira, who always has been among the best, was paying homage to Chico Buarque, possibly the greatest living star in Brazilian popular music. Buarque, who had actually been marked for death in the ‘70’s by the dictatorship and lived to tell about it, is very close to the hearts of the Brazilian people. His body of work, which includes poetry, songs of every style, stage plays, and even opera, stretches back to the sixties. With carnaval approaching, the combination of Chico/Mangueira was gaining momentum and it looked as though they might upset Viradouro. Everyday, it was impossible to pick up the paper without reading news and gossip of all the schools, but there was always something special to read about Mangueira and Viradouro. However, what happened on Monday night surprised everyone. First of all, no one could have anticipated the scope of majesty, perfection, and emotion of Mangueira’s parade. The paraders clearly sensed that this was their night. They didn’t even begin with their samba-enredo, but instead, got things red-hot by playing an older, very popular samba, “Chegou Mangueira” (Mangueira Has Arrived). Jamelão, at an incredible 85 years of age, led the singing of the samba enredo with a strength that electrified the Sambadrome for eighty minutes, a feat that few men a fourth his age could have accomplished. As the parade progressed, every element having something clever and imaginative to do with a song or other work by Chico Buarque - all executed with absolute precision - it was clear that this was one of the great parades of all time. It reminded us how deeply the work of this great poet/musician has touched our lives. And now, it was being presented with joy, creativity and love by these magicians from Mangueira. Chico Buarque himself was riding on the final, largest float which was also carrying the most famous sambistas and personalities from Mangueira. There was an unforgettable moment when he glanced down at the great singer/composer Carlos Cachaça, who was confined to a wheelchair, and very sweetly kissed his forehead. Many people will carry that image with them for the rest of their lives.
But later that night, the impossible happened. Out of nowhere, Beija Flor presented a parade that matched the elegance, imagination, energy, and perfection of Mangueira. Their colors, music, and enthusiasm were unsurpassed. On Wednesday afternoon, the scores were announced. Everywhere, there were people with headphones on, listening and tallying the results, surrounded by a cluster of people trying to get a glimpse of the results. In each category, the high and low scores of each school are discarded. This left Mangeira and Beija Flor tied with the highest possible scores. However, there isn’t much doubt that, of the two, the parade of Mangueira better captured the emotions of the entire city of Rio. Also, it was Mangueira’s 75th anniversary as a samba school. Beija Flor wisely and graciously suggested that Mangueira would parade last in the parade of champions that would take place the following Saturday. Viradouro placed fourth, much to everyone’s surprise, though perhaps it could have been predicted. The size and scope of carnaval can be a great equalizer. The parade has to be more than perfect - it has to soar. Remember that there is no such thing as a dress rehearsal. Much has to be left to spontaneity, and that intangible quality “X,” when all the staged pageantry of sight and sound confront the paraders and onlookers alike, creating a symbiotic transcendence, transforming the human spirit. This has always been the case of the winner. Trinta has always felt that the more grandeur he could achieve, the better. This year, however, it took more than opulence to ignite the sambadrome.
But this wasn’t just a fight of the titans. It was also the story of a group with much pride, tradition, and a heart the size of Brazil. There was another winner besides Mangueira and Beija Flor. Imperio Serrano mounted a beautiful, powerful parade, purposefully winning the second division and proving to everyone that they belonged in the Grupo Especial. There never really was any doubt.
Doug Auwarter, a jazz drummer and educator living in Kansas City, Missouri, gratefully acknowledges his hosts Rui, Elza and Eduardo Assunção; his guide to the world of samba, Rachel Valença; and his guide to all aspects of Brazilian culture, Rosane Soarez.
Epilogue: The following year (1999), Paraiso de Tuiutí won their division and moved into the Grupo A. In just one year (2000), they won this division and for the first time in their history, paraded in the Grupo Especial, opening Carnaval 2001 for the top division on Sunday night. There were mistakes, due mostly to their sudden ascendancy, but the crowd loved Paraiso’s parade and it was the general consensus that their samba de enredo and parade were more than worthy of a top division school. In short, the crowd loved and embraced this newcomer.
Paraiso de Tuiutí, Author Doug Auwarter’s School in 1998
Mangueira, BrazilMax Editor Bill Hinchberger’s School in 1998
Visit Doug Auwarter’s website, where you can purchase his book "Essential Latin Styles for the Drumset."
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