Friday, January 18, 2008

Erkin Koray


That day, Erkin Koray was living one of the happiest moments of his life. To sit across from John Lennon, one of the leading celebrities of the most famous Beatles Group was a dream come true for him.
Lennon was quite surprised to learn that the young man with the long hair sitting across from him was a Turkish musician. John Lennon and Erkin Koray were conversing on the magnificent terrace of an exquisite hotel 30 kilometers away from Cannes when Lennon explained that there were two reasons for his having come to Cannes: ‘First, my best friend Mike Jagger’s wedding. Second, some of my own movies are going to be shown in Cannes,’ then he added, ‘By the way, did you see my movie?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Koray.
‘Most people didn’t understand these movies,’ Lennon added. ‘Or, let’s say they didn’t like them.’ He went on to ask, ‘What do you think about them?’
Koray answered, ‘Whether I understand them or like them is of no significance. I think it should suffice to say that I felt them. What counts in Turkey is music.’ (As reported by Arda Uskan in Hürriyet, summer of 1971)

When it comes to rock’n’roll innovators from Turkey, Erkin Koray is second to none. Indeed, his career stretches to the time of rock’n’roll’s very inception. In 1957, he performed what has come to be accepted as Turkey’s first known rock’n’roll concert when he fronted his first amateur band at an Istanbul high school playing covers of hits by Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. He was also one of Turkey’s very first electric guitarists, recording what is generally recognised as being the first significant rock’n’roll record ever released in Turkey -- his first single, “Bir Eylül Akgami” (“A September Evening”)/“It’s So Long” in 1962. Little wonder he is referred to in his homeland as “Baba” or ‘Father’ Erkin, for he truly is the father of Turkish rock’n’roll in every way. To paraphrase Koray’s response to the Lippy One in on that French Riviera terrace, although I don’t understand Turkish I think it should suffice to say that I feel the music of Erkin Koray deep in my bones, head and heart and Rocks mah soul big time.

While non-Turkish sources continually name check Koray as “the Jimi Hendrix of Turkey” to my mind’s eye and ears he’s also the Chuck Berry, the Link Wray, the John Fahey, the Jimmy Page and the T.S. McPhee of Turkey and more all combined: Not only for the early and pioneering foundations he helped lay for Turkish rock’n’roll, how he synthesised multiple music forms together into a brand new thang, or how he delivered it all with such strength and integrity that the exotic Eastern influences he would eventually weave into his rock’n’roll lived and breathed vitality and was not just added for some Hollywooden Casbah décor effect but if there was ever a musician who kicked against the pricks, did it his way -- the hard way -- and by virtue of his undying efforts lit a rock’n’roll fire in Asia Minor that sustained in the most major way possible, then it was Erkin Koray. The manner in which he kicked up squalling fuzztone, stinging sustain, resounding reverb and redoubtable distortion as he wielded his 6-string scimitar into an organised and organic freak-storm like nobody’s business is astonishing. His style is hard to pin down, as it continually unfolded out and beyond the boundaries of rock’n’roll, later incorporating baglama (a Turkish stringed instrument; also known as a ‘saz’) and merging it all together with Turkish music styles that cut into and across elements of surf, psychedelia, proto-metal until it became ALL things beyond at once. To top it off, most of his best records included placing his expressively sonorous vocals centre stage as if to buffer his many axe attacks, which only made for a highly incongruous and intriguing mix of emotional shading oftentimes completely at odds with itself.

Truly, Baba Erkin jerks mah gherkin every time. And incredibly, Koray still continues to record and perform to the present day. But what makes his story so unique is not only his survival as a rock’n’roller, but as a rock’n’roller in Turkey whose records consistently kept pace with contemporary Anglo-American innovations and oftentimes exceeded them in their astute execution as they were refracted through distinctly Turkish rhythms. A quick smattering of historical and geographic background is in order to put Koray’s achievements as an artist in perspective, and after that I promise I’ll hoof it back to the greatness of Koray and orthwith-fay, OK?


We all know East is east and west is west.
But did you know Turkey is both?
And also...neither?
An Orient by any other name would be no Occident.
It’s where the East ends and the West begins. Or is it the other way round? Or both?


Roughly the size of Texas, Turkey is a country whose natural geography defines it as a massive land bridge between two continents. But like Aesop’s fable of the bat (whereby Herr Fledermaus gets resigned to a solitary nighttime existence for being too bird-like for acceptance by mammals and too mammalian to be recognised by other birds of flight as a winged brother) Turkey also shared a similar limbo by being considered too Oriental by the West and yet for all its many defining Eastern traits was perceived as a tad too Western by the standards of its middle eastern peers. So Turkey’s position of cultural otherness remained, despite -- or possibly, because of -- the many cultural traits it shared with its neighbouring milieu that had been accumulated for millennia as they were positioned upon a busy 4-lane East/West crossroads.

Turkey can be viewed as an oversized peninsula bounded by the Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean to the south and to the west by the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean Sea, Bulgaria and Greece while Turkey’s easternmost boundaries ran up alongside those of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Stretching from the Mediterranean coastline into the Anatolian plains and the mountainous regions that lay to the east, this land played host for thousands of years of human migration and settlement dating back to the Paleolithic Age on up through a bewildering number of successive cultural layers that ebbed and flowed with Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turkomen, Sky Turks, Seljuk Turks, Mongols and finally, Ottoman Turks (to name but a few) each conferring in turn their own individual influences upon the inhabitants of this continually re-conquered region.

After the defeat of the centuries-old dynasty of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And for the next fifteen years of his rule as first president of Turkey, an incredible amount of sweeping reforms were introduced that would dramatically transform life within the newly formed nation. Determined to bring Turkey forward as a modernised Western country through assiduous redefinitions of national identity, these reforms included adopting Western styles of clothing, the Metric system, the Western calendar and even the Roman alphabet was adopted in place of once-used Arabic script. Activities of religious sects were banned and religious attire of every kind was prohibited in public as a secular system of jurisprudence was set up to replace the former religious laws of the Ottoman Empire. But despite the severity of these measures, progressive steps were also made: amongst them rising literacy rates and the granting of social and political rights to women, as well as their right to run in parliamentary elections.

Forty years on, the embracing of all things Western was still going strong in Turkey. But it was not until the mid sixties that the influence of rock’n’roll would become widespread enough to secure a position in Turkish culture when it well and truly was kick-started into high with the Altin Mikrofon (‘Golden Microphone’) contest. Staged by the major Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet, when it announced that all awarded finalists would be guaranteed a record release with the profits going solely to the artists themselves, the response was overwhelming. Contestants of an incredibly wide age span entered, matched by an equally varied assortment of talent later characterised as either “reviving the brisk tones of Anatolia” or “playing the music they picked up from Turkish folk repertoires in the rhythms of cha-cha-cha, twist, bossa nova, slow, swing or waltz.” Among the finalists were the ultra-tight beat group Cahit Oben with “Halimem” (‘My Halime’) while Ferdi Ozbegen edged in with his cheeky “Sandigimi Acamadim” (‘I Couldn’t Open My Coffer’). Group Sonya Dores performed “Gemiciler” (‘Sailors’) with a Spanish flavour, and Ilham Gencer wowed the judges with his own composition, “Zamane Kizlar” (‘Modern Day Girls’). Kanat Gur’s bossa nova version of “Karadir Kaslarin Ferman Yazdirir” (‘Your Black Eyebrows Write Ferman’) was an equal gas for the judges while the Shadows-obsessed quintet Siluetler converted a traditional Anatolian folk number “Kasik Havasi” (‘Castanet Style’) into a supersnazz surf instrumental.

Needless to say, it was an enthusiastic and culturally checquered event whose British equivalent would be on par with a mid-sixties NME Poll Winner’s concert featuring Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, Mr. Acker Bilk, The Shadows, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, Yootha Joyce backed by Sounds Incorporated, Cilla Black and the Aberystwyth Men’s Choral Society.

Although Anadolu (‘Anatolian’) Pop was now officially off and running, it still had a long way to go. But with each successive Altin Mikrofon contest, massive steps were taken forward in establishing a newfound acceptance for rock’n’roll as groups that re-interpreted centuries-old indigenous folk songs with electrified Western instruments steadily came on the scene and began winning more of the top positions. By the time of the fourth and final Golden Microphone competition in 1968, the finalists were almost entirely comprised of rock’n’roll groups. A 17-day tour was scheduled throughout Turkey and this is where we now reconnect to Erkin Koray, for the Erkin Koray Dörtlüsü (‘Quartet’) were at last Altin Mikrofon finalists after an unsuccessful bid the previous year and now they were competing against Haramiler, the recently formed Mogollar, Sis Beslisi & Turgut Okay, and the ludicrously un-Rock-named and -sounding T.P.A.O. Batman Orkestrasi (as Pop Art as it might initially seem, the ‘Batman’ merely referred to the Turkish city of their origin) who somehow aced first place with their “Meselidir Enginde Daglar Meseli” (‘The Mountains Are Stronger Far Away’). However, the psychedelic band Haramiler came in second with “Arpa Bugday Daneler” (‘Pieces of Barley’) in matching Carnaby Street gear while the furry-booted Mogollar followed up in third place “by the luck of their lamb skins” as they wryly noted to the press.

As for Koray and his Dörtlüsü, they squeaked into fourth with their uncontrollable Middle East instro rave-up, “Çiçek Dagi” (‘Mountain of Flowers’) that hung ten like The Great Society sans Grace Slick but at twice the speed and proficiency in their eastern modal raga-sinations and from here, Koray’s Turkish express just kept-a-rollin’. Ever since he had finished his compulsory two-year military service in 1965 (spending it as a guitarist in the Air Force Jazz Band) Koray had grown out his hair, which with each passing year had increased in length to perilous consequence: his outward appearance caused several separate knife attacks on his person on the streets of Istanbul.

Koray packed a knife for defence, let his stab wounds heal, continued to grow his hair and rocked on.

A year prior to his Altin Mikrofon triumph, Koray had signed with Istanbul Records, for whom he would subsequently record fourteen singles between the years of 1967-1973. Singles being the primary format of choice in Turkey at the time, this array of seven inchers displayed Koray’s consistent talents as guitarist, arranger and vocalist and they are primo examples of Turkish Rock as they traced his development from recording the knees-up motherfucker cover of “Land Of A Thousand Dances” (in Turkish!) to the very beginnings of his increasing interest in merging rock with Eastern forms, especially ‘arabesk,’ a Turkish version of Arab popular music which despite official condemnation had continued to thrive. By the fifties, sizeable migrations from rural to urban areas had created a culture of disaffection, and arabesk music was its soundtrack. By the end of the sixties, it had gained widespread popularity in the peripheries of the more prosperous cities of Turkey as it related issues of national identity that Atatürk’s reforms had left unaddressed and inadvertently had amplified in its accelerated drive towards modernising Turkey into a potential Western-styled power. Arabesk was a reaction to this abrupt cultural alignment with the West, and it described a social reality of the migrant folk who felt like outsiders in their own land as nostalgia, fatalism, frustration and resentment all took form in arabesk music alongside recurrent themes of city alienation. This expressionist Turkish reggae/punk/film noir-all-at-once art form would gain its widest recognition during the mid-sixties through the exotic records of Orhan Gencebay. Flying under cover of then-popular sitar vogue on Western pop records, Gencebay’s skilled use of baglama (the Turkish stringed instrument akin to the lute), electric baglama and sitar succeeded in blending non-Occidental elements in an entirely new and popular approach. And although arabesk was still officially off limits, Gencebay’s expertise as a musician as well as an ability to cut a dashing figure in Western clothes subversively offset by his overtly Eastern-styled moustache successfully bridged all gaps of acceptance. And since his records sounded psychedelic anyway, when questioned if they harboured any “hidden arabesk intentions,” Gencebay could only coolly reply that it was merely an attempt “to sound like Pink Floyd.”

Erkin Koray met Gencebay in the early seventies and was immediately struck by his friend’s knowledge of Eastern musical forms, tunings and techniques, finding a potential for further explorations through adaptations of traditional baglama and Eastern influences and re-setting it within the context of psychedelic Rock with Turkish chords and rhythms. And during the years 1969-1971, Koray and his band Yeralti Dörtlüsü (‘Underground Quartet’) set about investigating and synthesising just that in their communal house with spectacular results. Scattered throughout seven singles on the Istanbul imprint, some of the highlights (among nothing but) of Koray’s work with Yeralti Dörtlüsü were: his arrangement of “Kendim Ettim Kendim Buldum” (‘What I Reaped, I Sowed’), the fuzzed-out radio-in-a-kebab-shop-on-acid sonorities of “Nihansin Dideden” (‘You Are Hidden From Sight’), the epic “Istemem” (‘I Don’t Want’) with its ultimate refusenik song title and infinite Dervish guitar soloing and the snarling fuzz guitar that battled Koray’s vocals of regret over sharp handclaps epic that is “Köprüden Geçti Gelin” (‘The Bride Crossed Over the Bridge’). After Koray split up Yeralti Dörtlüsü, he immediately formed his next band, Erkin Koray Süper Grup who through two excellent singles (“Yagmur”/“Aska Inanmiyorum” and “Sen Yoksun Diye”/“Goca Dünya”) continued to blaze trails without a trace of artifice as he overlaid fuzz guitar riffs upon amplified non-linear baglama cycles that cross-referenced Eastern motifs naturally and with purpose into his own interpretations of Anatolian folk ballads or ‘türküler.’ And his increasing incorporation of arabesk in his music would increase its acceptance on a wider scale.


The sole release of Erkin Koray & Ter: “Hor Görme Garibi”/“Züleyha” (1972) is one of the heaviest in all Turkish Rock.Ever restless, Koray split his trüly Süper Grup in 1972 and formed one that was even more süper. So süper, it bordered on the stüpor. Calling themselves and their noise Erkin Koray & Ter, here Koray fronted a three-piece comprised of refugees from the recently-demised power trio, Bunalimlar. ‘Ter’ is the Turkish word for ‘sweat’ and this was an entirely appropriate a moniker for this group of hairy volume freaks as their “Hor Görme Garibi”/“Züleyha” 45 is without a doubt not only the wildest and heaviest of Koray’s career but probably in all Turkish Rock as well. The blazing intensity of both sides of this single is ridiculously matched with an equal amount of energy and full throttle abandon as successive waves of sonic boomeranging come raging forth in a froth from the speakers as the fuckin’-ayyy!-side, a cover of Orhan Gencebay’s “Hor Görme Garibi” (‘Don’t Underestimate the Poor Guy’) gets shot up into a Stooges-like stratosphere as ex-Bunalimlar guitarist Aydin Cakus let loose with an uninterrupted, unhinged guitar solo that managed to even shoehorn in Mick Ronson’s melody riff from “Moonage Daydream” into a seething pre-punk frenzy that hung behind Koray’s calmly intoned yet Cappadocian cavern sized-reverbed vocals. The insanity spills all over the flipside “Züleyha,” where once more Ter just rip it up in a reprise of their scorched-earth policy style while Koray’s vocals, although more echo-chambered than before, are imbued with an open air triumphant march to victory. It’s a deliriously killer single whose defiance weighs in to match that of the “Raw Power” outtake released in ’77 as Iggy Pop/James Williamson’s one-two punch 45, “I Got A Right”/“Gimme Some Skin.”


Seven years in the making: Erkin Koray’s first and self-titled LP from 1973However, Istanbul Records were unenthusiastic with this new and unsubtle approach of Koray’s and balked at a second Erkin Koray & Ter release, causing all activities of this group to draw to an abrupt end. Koray attempted to form a group called Stop who never got to the recording stage, but two individual tracks from the time eventually saw release in 1973 as Koray’s magnificent psychedelic single, “Mesafeler” (‘Distances’)/“Silinmeyen Hatiralar.” It would be Koray’s final single for Istanbul, and after seven years of single-only releases, Istanbul finally released the self-titled “Erkin Koray” album, Koray’s first ever long player. And although containing excellent material, excluding both sides of the recent “Mesafeler” single, “Erkin Koray” was drawn together from material dating from as far back as 1967 and was hardly representative of Koray’s current artistic pursuits. Whether issued merely as a contractual release, a weird afterthought or a makeshift compilation to meet the demands of Koray’s sustained popularity in Turkey, “Erkin Koray” would be his final release on Istanbul Records.

In 1974, Koray signed with Dogan Records and it was here where he was able to finally present his artistic statement in a form that was contemporary, under his control and unrestricted by the abbreviated length of singles. And what he delivered is considered by many to be his masterwork: the full length “Elektronik Türküler” (“Electronic Ballads”) album.


The alternative sleeve of “Elektronik Türküler” found on the CD reissueThe longhaired Koray now also sported a beard and with a voice as sonorous and robust as ever, worked into the texture of the album’s eight tracks a layer of swirling and droning e-guitar and e-baglama interplay decorated with repercussions, bongos and tambourines. Koray recorded three of his own original Rock instrumentals alongside five remaining tracks that were all versions of Anatolian folk songs ranging in vintage from years to centuries. Koray did the arrangements and was able to unify all eight songs into a seamless trip where past and present, east and west, acoustic and electric all merged together effortlessly. Joining Koray were Sedat Avci from the old days of Koray’s Dörtlüsü on drums, bassist Ahmet Guvenc while additional players Faruk Tekbilek (baglama) and Eyup Duran (bongos) rounded out the trio.

“Ahmet made a very funny voice when he was acting as harmony vocalist, we could not resist laughing. He was also laughing when he was discharged as vocalist. He suppressed all of us when we were playing “Türkü”... Sedat was always motivated, successful, full of good intentions and an old friend. Ahmet and I fit very well in the corners of the rhythms that he structured. Once he left by saying, “I’ll be back soon” and came back two hours later. He got confused when he listened to “Korkulu Rüya” for the first time, then he liked it a lot.
We got into the studio at 18:00 in the evening for “Karli Daglar.” It was 9:00 in the morning when our voice engineer Doruk Onatkut told us, “I didn’t like it. Should we start it all over again?” He would almost pass away... Our lovely girl Meftun prepared our teas, brought our fruit juices, and made every effort for us. She was a blue angel representing all goodness when we tried to lift a 25 kilogram Marshall. Our record producer Hidayet, whom we love so much, came to our place to ask: “What is going on there?” We let him listen to “Inat.” He made no comment. His cheeks were a little bit red...
When we were recording “Yalnizlar Rihtimi” our tea-maker Baba left the kitchen locked. We suffered from thirst that day... In the meantime, Doruk Onatkut provided us with the required environment, in addition to taking care of the recording in a very delicate and successful manner by giving examples of the modern world. In sum, it was a nice and productive work...” -Erkin Koray (Translated from the original liners notes to “Elektronik Türküler”)


Bearded Baba: Koray as he appears in the gatefold of “Elektronik Türküler.”“Elektronik Türküler” begins with the traditional Anatolian ballad “Karli Daglar” (‘Snowy Mountains’) and the sound that first emerges are those of the plucked four strings of the baglama and the sound is both sensuous and languid as hell. With the sound of a telephone ringing to break the previous supinely-inducing spell, another chiftetelli/belly dance undulation rises to the surface with Koray’s instrumental, “Sir” (‘Secret’) his lead baglama book-ending a middle break where he suddenly lets loose with a stinging and entirely psychedelic guitar solo. The mood all changes with the next track, “Hele Yar,” an acoustic re-arrangement of a Turkish ballad from the 17th Century by the Anatolian troubadour, Karacaoglan. The title translates into either ‘Special Lover’ or ‘Let’s Go, Girl!’ and it “sounds” exactly like both -- it’s the most happy-go-lucky moment of the album as twin baglamas construct a dance rhythm behind lilting bass and scant drums. For several cycling verses they court a young lady as all three wander through foothills, place a flower behind her ear and then chase each other down by the seaside, ahhh... This romantic piece sees contributing background vocals by Sedat the drummer and their “blue angel” Meftun, and after endless repetitions of this dance of love and life, they all can’t take it anymore and it all breaks down in laughter. Perfect.
Produced within a few minutes during a break, the brief instrumental “Korkulu Rüya” (‘Nightmare’) runs rampant with sinister organ chords held down as if they sleep’s suffocating pillow itself as backwards electric guitar streaks by laser-like as all the while a steady bass line lurks watches from a distance as though it’s the Türküdelic cousin of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”. Koray freaks out on the organ in-between yelps and panting in terror until finally and with harried relief jerks awake to find himself back in his Istanbul pad. With its muffled T-Rex/Stones groove, a cover of Kemal Inci’s “Yalnizlar Rihtimi” (‘The Wharf of the Lonely Ones’) is the most Western moment of the album. Taking its title from a 1959 Turkish film, piano and bass buoyantly carry the melody from wharf side out into the open sea and past the promontories of care. By the end, Koray just drops off his vocal and is content to wedge in a glowing guitar solo that tears off and into the remainder of the track. Koray intones a final verse of “aaaaahh”s along with it, but his solo just carries along to the end, permanently anchored to the rhythm.

Side two opens with the acoustic guitar-led love ballad, “Cemalim” (‘My Cemal’). Written by the early 20th century folk composer Urguplu Refik Basaran, this well known Anatolian folk number is here strung up by Koray’s stridently strummed acoustic guitar that continues unbendingly throughout against overdubbed electric guitar placed in patches with excellent accenting. The voices of Sedat the drummer and “blue angel” Meftun waft softly in the background, echoing Koray’s hypnotising vocal repetition of the title as he accompanies himself with highly controlled fuzz guitar and shuddering, Cipollina-like filigrees. Halfway through, it continues on with the repeat of a single word for an extended period and just rolls with the tide of Koray’s acoustic rhythm, gradually slowing in tempo to a beautifully (bitter-) sweet conclusion.
The brief instrumental, “Inat” (‘Stubbornness’) opens with an e-guitar BRAAANG-BRAAANG-BRAAANG at top volume gain, and it’s a roomful of Koray-ian fuzz guitars with nowhere to do and nothing to go except to butt heads against themselves and the studio walls in this drum-less dual guitar solo against Koray’s double-tracked bongo backing. This proto-metal taxim/improvisation then falls away without warning and immediately into the nine-minute Eastern mystery odyssey that is “Türkü” (‘Ballad’), a piece co-written by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and the father of modernised “türkü” (‘folk ballads’), Ruhi Su. With an opening flourish of reeds and drums the band then breaks down to allow Koray his sole baglama spot to establish the main theme. Then Ahmet Tekbilek’s kalem, that Turkish double-reed wind instrument of snake charming tendencies riffs and weaves into a truly psychedelic arabesk against a foundation of solid and simple bass and drums that keep the tempo at a hashish-resinated pace (By way of reference, it constantly reminds me of the beginning of Aphrodite’s Child’s “All The Seats Were Occupied” and The Stones’ Eastern tinged freak-out on “Gomper.”) A flourish on the guitar and the voice of Erkin the Great emerges from the shadows with cave-like reverb, slowly reciting words of great import (Although I unhesitatingly state I know not a word of Turkish, the repeated phrase of -- I think-- “bizim nos plak” gets intoned over and over again as if in consecration of a ceremonial rite and I trust its meaning is probably twice as heavy as I think.) The reeds come in and weave once more and the band is propelling itself steadily faster with Dervish-like rotary-ness. Koray’s fingering guitar trembles against weaving woodwind and everything is flying high until a quick drum accent signals an abrupt breakdown where breaking glass shattering the calm. But the high pitched woodwind continues even sweeter than before, picking itself up from the broken glass to charm back the vibe and the band enters at a pace even quicker and more muscular than before. A single baglama returns, needle-pointing back the main theme as Koray’s guitar and his trance-like intonation carries further and further back into time and Koray’s brain with each repeated “Bizim nos plak…” each word gaining further and further into ancestral echo-land where east is west and west is east...

And on this album, Koray successfully synthesised it all into one.

Koray is a steadfast rock’n’roll musician of the highest and most enduring calibre. Although the past sixty years have not been easy on “Baba” Erkin as he endured over four decades in rock’n’roll and faced problems with his music, personal appearance and lifestyle. But the rip-offs, stabbings, illnesses, relocating homes and even the political upheavals during the September 1980 military coup in his native land could not extinguish his rock’n’roll flame. He once said: “I will not leave music until music leaves me.” And this most resolute rock’n’roller has honoured his word and the spirit of music -- as well as rock’n’roll fans in both Turkey and abroad -- many times over with his musical vision.
by The Seth Man

5 comments:

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