A new jazz cafe comes to the Harambee neighborhood

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Jazz is spirited, captures moods and its birth by African Americans. It has the power to relax you or move you to dance and take action. It also pairs well with coffee, tea and good company.

At least, that model has worked for Sam Belton, owner of City.Net Jazz Cafe in downtown Milwaukee. 

Sam is opening up a new spot in the Harambee neighborhood called Sam’s Place

If you’re a coffee drinker or a lover of Abyssinia coffee, which is roasted by Sam and named after the birthplace of coffee, you’ll be able to take a sip at Sam’s Place. You’ll also be able to enjoy delicious food.  

“Sam’s Place is a gathering place for people from all walks of life,” Sam says. “We’ll meet the appetites of people in this area, in this community, as well as people from others as well.”

Photo courtesy of Bader Philanthropies Inc.

Sam has been playing jazz in Milwaukee for years. In fact he has more than 60 years of experience playing jazz. Sam says he started playing drums at a young age and went on to play in his school’s band while he attended Milwaukee Public Schools. Sam got a performance degree in jazz percussion from the Wisconsin college Conservatory of Music and later a certification in music education at Alverno College back when there were few men of color attending college.

Sam went on to play with many Milwaukee jazz artists.  

“I played with all of the major jazz artists here in Milwaukee,” says Sam. “People like Manty Ellis, Berkeley Fudge, Buddy Montgomery; it’s been a blessing to me to be a musician for many years.”

Sam’s places open now and Sam says that it’s here to serve the neighborhood.

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The We Rise series looks at how it takes a village to sustain the arts

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What will the Milwaukee theater scene see as Black artists continue to uphold and uplift each other?

That’s what Rajendra Maharaj asked Milwaukee art leaders for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Black History Month series last Monday.

Last week’s theme was “It Takes a Village.” Rajendra says it took an honest look at what Black and Brown people can do when they come together to advance the arts. 

There were two sets of panel conversations where Milwaukee’s Black theater organizers talked about their roles in seeing Milwaukee’s Black theater and film scene grow. One of the themes that emerged from the night is the support Black artists have given to each other.

“Really all of the artists here in Milwaukee, the community of Milwaukee, and particularly the black artists in Milwaukee, they have kept me moving,” says Catina Cole founder of MPower Theater Group. “We have collaborated, we’ve been inspiring each other. Sometimes when we’ve been invisible to the larger community, the Black artists here have embraced the small theater company that we have.” 

Mikki Schaffner Chiké Johnson and Malkia Stampley in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” | Photo by Mikki Schaffner

All artists agree though that to continue to bring Black talent to theater and film there needs to be a fostering of young talent. Here’s La’Ketta Caldwell, director of the Opportunity Academy at Lumin Schools.

“I just think about the opportunity when my babies had to perform at the Quadracci Powerhouse,” says La’Ketta. “When they were working with the tech people there, they were so excited about that opportunity. The dance team performed on that stage. It just boosted their confidence and now they want to go to shows all of the time.”

Malkia Stampley of the Milwaukee Black Theater Festival says that those looking to step on stage at a later stage of their life should be considered too. 

Panelists Tammy Belton-Davis, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, La’Ketta Caldwell, Malkia Stampley, DiMonte Henning and Catina Cole talk about supporting and building Black theater.

“We have to grow our talent and not just the youth, but our adults,” says Malkia. “They are hungry. They want to transition into theater. Those who are retired, they want to practice, they want to try this. So let’s give them a chance.”

Smaller theaters can experience situations in which they often don’t have the budgets to bring all, if any, of their productions to large spaces like the Quadracci Powerhouse. However, even if smaller theater companies cannot provide large scale opportunities for their actors, La’Ketta says it’s important to make sure young and new talent have options to perform, period.

“I think there needs to be a huge effort among our philanthropists and those who give small amounts in large amounts in uplifting and empowering our organizations that work with our emerging artists,” says La’Ketta. “Our emerging artists will grow up to lead. We have to give funding to them. When we do that we’re widening the pool of actors.”

To hear the full conversation, go to our Facebook page, where we’ve been streaming Milwaukee Rep’s Black History Month Series each Monday night.

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A Milwaukee tradition of classical guitar lives on, drawing performers from all over the world this year

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For eight years the Latino Arts Inc. Guitar Festival and Competition has been bringing music and beauty to the city. This year is no exception, as a virtual guitar fest means the pool of talent has widened. There are players attending from around the world and more students competing in the competition.

“I was very surprised when I came to the United States and I saw that education was so segmented and so separated even,” says René Izquierdo, professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Guitar Studies program. “It’s very important to give this idea to the kids that art, music and beauty belong in every single aspect of their life.”

René is a performer for the festival. But as a teacher working with the Latino Arts Inc. Latino Strings program, he says that music shouldn’t be seen as strictly relating to itself. It fits in with all parts of a young person’s future.

Dinorah Márquez, program director of Latino Strings program, agrees. She says the youth arts program is a way to give students that don’t have access to conservatory study an opportunity to learn through a scholarship based program.

“classical guitar” by wiwin.wr

“The idea was that our children would be exposed not just to the possibility of playing an instrument but to exploring their roots and who we are, where we come from and the richness of our cultures through music,” says Dinorah.

But this year because things are virtual, Dinorah and René say that they’ve been able to work with students and professionals from all over the country for the guitar competition and concert. Normally students from the Latino Strings program as well as students in surrounding states would participate in the competition. But because of the virtual setting they have participants from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Canada, along with surrounding states outside of the Midwest that are competing and playing on the virtual stage.

Whether the students go on to play professionally or not, the most important takeaway René says is the discipline students develop.

“Many times parents are terrified of the fact that the kids will become musicians,” says René. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s not a job for them. That wouldn’t pay the bills,’ which I disagree with. It’s not just a job. It’s a discipline.”

The competition for the students is already underway. Those that participate in the intermediate and advanced placements will get a chance to play in the concert happening on Feb 27.

Dinorah says that the competition is a Milwaukee tradition that will continue on pandemic or not.

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Colorful mid-century photos unearthed of this Milwaukee High School

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This week on Urban Spelunking — our podcast partnership with OnMilwaukee — we’re getting a particularly interesting view of a Milwaukee high school when it first opened its doors.

An exterior view of the former Custer High School, now home to MPS’ Barack Obama School of Technical and Career Education. Photographer unknown, digitized by Adam Levin via OnMilwaukee.

That view is thanks to set of Kodachrome slides unearthed by Adam Levin, founder of the Old Milwaukee Facebook group, and frequent Urban Spelunking collaborator and guest.

The undated photos allow you to look back into the former Custer High School — nearly 70 years ago — and perfectly capture the mid-century history.

A look inside the library during an open house. Photographer unknown, digitized by Adam Levin via OnMilwaukee.

On this week’s podcast we discuss more about the history of Custer High School, now MPS’ Barack Obama School of Technical and Career Education, plus we zoom out and learn about the overall trends in school design after WWII.

Then, OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo gets a bit philosophical, poignantly explaining his fascination with schoolhouse architecture and how that curiosity compelled him to write a book on the topic.

Football players huddle on the new practice field. Photographer unknown, digitized by Adam Levin via OnMilwaukee.

Listen to this week’s episode below, and continue to OnMilwaukee for more history and even more photos.

Students getting hands on experience with the technology of the era. Photographer unknown, digitized by Adam Levin via OnMilwaukee.

Like what you hear? Subscribe!

Get all of 88Nine’s podcasts delivered right to you weekly at RadioMilwaukee.org/Podcasts. We’ve got podcasts about music, food and film, with fresh episodes dropping every week! And don’t forget to check out our new podcast “By Every Measure,” a six-part examination of systemic racism in Milwaukee.

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Milwaukee students can now compete in the August Wilson Monologue Competition

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If you’re up on the most popular films streaming right now or you have listened to Cinebuds lately you might have heard of the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Well, August Wilson penned the play became that movie.

Wilson was a prolific playwright who wrote 10 plays that look at the lives of African Americans and also the human condition. 

Ashley Jordan, the recruiter of the August Wilson Monologue Competition and lead teaching artist for Milwaukee Repertory Theater, says that Wilson’s works can be enjoyed by anyone of any culture because of his relevancy.

“He literally has seven-plus plays that are phenomenal, that are grounded, that are clear, and that we can relate to,” says Ashley. “He writes about not only the racial injustices, he also writes about love, he writes about family.”

Wilson died in 2005 but his work impacts people today.

There’s a national student monologue competition honoring Wilson that’s been happening since 2007. This is the first year that Milwaukee students will be participating in the event, as the Milwaukee Rep has been selected to host.

Ultimately, two Milwaukee students will fly out to New York to deliver their best Wilson monologues. But first they’ll need to win the local match.

“As a teaching artist, one of the things that I’m really big on is understanding who the students are first,” says Ashley. “I had one student and he was like, ‘I don’t really think I’m an actor. I’m not into monologues or anything like that.’ I said, ‘So what are you into?’”

Ashley says that the student responded that he was into sports. Immediately Ashley thought of Wilson’s play “Fences.”

A student performs a monologue when The Milwaukee Rep was shadowing the competition last year.

“Fences” is a play about the breaking down of a father and son’s relationship through a means of sports but also in how the harsh realities of racism can disrupt families and affect people on a personal level.”

Jeffrey Mosser, associate director of education at the Rep, says that the students are really connecting to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” partially due to its debut on Netflix. However, plays like “Fences” still stand out to the students.

“I think I’ve been hearing about a lot of students who are interested in doing something from ‘Ma Rainey’ because just because they see it, they know it, and they can start to feel it a little bit,” says Jeff. 

But as the selection of monologues the students can choose from is so broad, Jeff says that the students pick up pieces that he wouldn’t have guessed.

Jeff says they’re working with organizations like the Boy and Girls Club to host workshops and reach students across Milwaukee. They are also giving workshops during normal classroom time to gather talent. 

Students participating in a workshop from the shadow competition in 2020.

Ashley says it led to some powerful moments of connection. 

“There are two young ladies that I think of in particular, they go to completely different schools, and they’ve never met a single day in their life,” says Ashley. “All of a sudden, when they came into the session, it was like they literally are mirroring each other.”

The competition is more than just a chance for students to perform. Jeff says that with the competition they’re inserting more Black and Brown playwrights and authors’ works in the classroom.

“One amazing aspect about August Wilson is that he is a civics lesson,” says Jeff. “He is a theater lesson. He is a literature lesson. The whole thrust of this process is to get August Wilson in schools and to be recognized as a national literary figure. He’s writing with a contemporary voice, he’s writing stories that are that hit personally, and that aren’t hundreds of years away, like Shakespeare or like some of those other Greeks.”

Ashley and Jeff say that the workshops have students wanting to know not just about August Wilson but other Black and Brown playwrights, which is what they hoped and are excited for.

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How a Milwaukee barbershop is helping youth of color open up about mental health

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It’s time for a little barbershop chat.

Sebastián “Sebas” Fuentes of the Milwaukee hip-hop band Browns Crew, Ambrose Wilson-Brown, Samer Ghani and Jose Perez (known as JP) are helping high school boys to open up about their mental health struggles with a visit to the barbershop.

Sebas says that in the midst of the pandemic, social strife and uncertainty they wanted to reach out to youth and make sure they’re alright.

“We already know that young boys of color are already under high stress a lot of times,” says Sebas. “The whole concept was to not only provide haircuts to young boys so that they could feel fresh and feel good about themselves but it also provides a space where we can speak about these topics freely.”

But why the barbershop?

“The barbershop, it’s a big thing,” says JP, owner of Flashly Faded, the Milwaukee barbershop where the guys hosted conversations surrounding mental health for youth. “They see us as psychiatrists or therapists. They use us for so many things.”

The barbershop talks took place one day a week over the course of three weeks. 

Sebas says that there’s a lot of attention in mental health initiatives to reaching out to at-risk youth.

“But what happens when you become 18, 19?” asks Sebas. “The youth part maybe gets dropped out, but you’re still at risk, right?”

The idea started with Ambrose and Sebas. Ambrose saw a powerful exhibit where young Black boys had mentors and strangers look portraits of them in their every day. 

SAMERGHANI Photo credit: Samer Ghani

“All the boys were looking like boys,” says Ambrose. “Call it mean mug or ice grill. [They were] not smiling. Just looking straight ahead.”

Ambrose says the boys in the exhibit had positive emotional responses to being seen. That idea stuck out to Ambrose. He reached out to Sebas, who he knew from working with on youth mental health projects, about his idea to bring a project like that to Milwaukee. Sebas took off in organizing something similar to what Ambrose saw. Their project went on to be mental health chats and accompanying portraits of the young men who participated.

First, Sebas reached out to Samer for his work in photography and for how he connects to people in the city through his work.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” says Samer. “I grew up in a single-parent household. So this is the kind of stuff that I want to be doing, given the platform that I’ve been given by our community.”

SAMERGHANI JP, owner of Flashly Faded, styles one of the participant’s hair | Photo credit: Samer Ghani

Samer has a portrait series that looks at male body image, he also takes amazing photographs of musicians, artists and the city itself. Samer says that as a child of immigrant parents there can be a lot to navigate socially as a student.

And JP agrees. JP says that he struggles with anxiety and depression but he talks about it and wants to signal to youth that they can talk about their anxieties as well.

“It’s very hard when you’re growing up and you can’t really connect with your parents or anybody,” says JP. “So why not talk to us? We dress like them, we talk like them.”

The guys say that the students were a lot more resilient than they considered themselves to be.

SAMERGHANI Photos and comments of some of the participants of the barbershop talks | Photo credit: Samer Ghani

“These kids are very bright,” says Samer. “They’ve gone through so much ambiguity that they’re equipped with a lot more skills than they think they are.”

The crew gave advice from their own experiences to the students if needed. They found that the students often wanted to talk about their futures. They focused on things like what schools they were going to and making it to graduation.

“We forget that our boys are children sometimes because they got mustaches and beards and because at the end of the day they’re boys,” says Ambrose. “I’m really happy to hear all the guys talk about their own personal journeys because that was the other idea in the back of my head. I had a transformation seeing those pictures, just like the boys had their own transformation. I’m really hoping that we do continue doing this and it grows as 2021 continues.”

Ambrose, Samer, Sebas and JP got to see what they intended the project to be — an experience where young men can be seen and heard. All four of the organizers agreed that they want to do something like the barbershop talks again, so perhaps be on the lookout for a chat.

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A $60 million dollar renovation looks to keep Milwaukee’s homegrown artists here

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Have you ever looked at an old, vacant building and imagined what it could be fixed up? Perhaps you thought it could be something you felt your neighborhood needed or a cool place to hang out.

Que El-Amin and Rayhanio “Ray Nitti” Boynes are transforming the old Briggs and Stratton building on 32nd and Center into a housing and community center. Que is a real estate developer and Ray Nitti is a partner along with the creative and political consultant.

Ray Nitti says that people have expressed hope for the project.

“Especially the neighbors that live on 33rd Street side, you get a lot of them talking about the excitement, like, ‘Oh I’ve been here for 10 years and we’ve been waiting for somebody to do something with this building!’” he says. “Or they talk about what this building attracts. ‘Oh, the kids are always throwing rocks and breaking the windows over there.’ So they’re excited to see some different energy happening with this space. I’m just excited to see what comes out of it.”

A while back members of 88Nine’s team joined Ray Nitti and Que on a tour of the old Briggs and Stratton building on 32nd and Center. The project is a $60 million dollar investment.

Participants tour the old Briggs and Stratton site, which is being renovated into a community center and housing | Photo credit: Kevin Sucher

Ray Nitti says that he sees the upcoming site as a means of keeping homegrown talent in the city as it’s an investment into the areas that get overlooked.

“The narrative has been that you have to leave Milwaukee to obtain a level of success to thrive as an artist, and there’s nothing further from the truth that Milwaukee lacks resources and platforms,” says Ray Nitti. “We have historically allocated and distributed these resources and platforms a certain way so certain sectors of Milwaukee are not included or are often skipped over.”

In addition to a housing portion that will hold 197 residential units, there’s also 35,000 square feet of community service space and 30,000 square feet of creative programming. It’s a lot of space.

They’re building basketball courts and chess spots for communal action and a playground for the kids. 

Photo credit: Kevin Sucher

Ray Nitti says that when the Briggs and Stratton building became vacant it affected the surrounding neighborhood.

“As you can see we are on 32nd Center Street,” says Ray Nitti. “When Briggs and Stratton left this neighborhood so did a lot of things as well, money, jobs — you started seeing houses being torn down. We’re looking at the community within a corridor as something to revitalize the neighborhood, bring that energy back, bring creativity back. Encourage our creative community in the city to use their talents to help better the neighborhood around it.”

The development has been four years in the making thus far. Que El-Amin says that the potential outcome of it is something that adds pressure but he’s looking forward to the completed project.

“We put a lot of time and effort into it,” says Que. “It’s a huge responsibility, but it does feel good that it’s in people’s hands that care.”

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Phyllis Yvonne Stickney on bringing her life experiences to the stage

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Milwaukee Repertory Theater is curating a Black History Month series called “We Rise,” which looks at the past, present and future of Black artists in theater. 

For the first week, Associate Artistic Director Rajendra Maharaj paid homage to a pioneer in theater, Ms. Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine is the first African American playwright to have a play debut on Broadway. That play is “A Raisin in the Sun,” which Rajendra, as a director, has put on at Arkansas Repertory Theater. Actress Phyllis Yvonne Stickney joined Rajendra in his production. Phyllis has acted in “New Jack City” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She played the role of Mama Lena for Rajendra’s production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Here’s Phyllis talking to Rajendra about her surprise when she was chosen for the role and what the opportunity meant for her.

“I didn’t think I’d be cast as mama Lena because most of the actors that we see portraying that role have a different body type than I,” she says. “So I remember thinking ‘Well, I’m much too small. I’m much too short in stature. I don’t have enough girth.’”

Phyllis says that the role allowed her to breathe her own personal experiences with racism into the character.

“I’m from the south. I’m from Little Rock, Ark. I remember being the first in the community. I remember what my parents went through not being able to go to a drive-in movie because of our color, not being able to live in certain houses. So I had an opportunity to put myself for the first time in my career, speaking words that I had heard so many times.”

Radio Milwaukee will be live streaming conversions the Rep is having with artists and thespians every Monday on Facebook. Join us and the Rep to learn more about Black history in the making.

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Pink Umbrella Theater’s immersive new play turns your house into a stage

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Kids, parents and people of Milwaukee, this is your last chance to catch a unique theater experience.

Pink Umbrella Theater is putting on a show called “Scavengers!”

“What it is about is a group of four friends, a turtle, a rabbit, a dog and a duck, who are all buddies with one another are planning on planting a friendship garden, but their seeds go missing,” says Katie Cummings, the founder and executive director of Pink Umbrella. 

“Scavengers!” is an interactive play where kids help find the missing seeds in their homes.

“We send packets home to the grown-ups in the house with objects that they need to hide, so the house becomes the stage,” says Katie. “Then the participants travel throughout their home throughout their play to find the objects and solve the riddles and find the seeds.”

There’s also a “sensory immersive” part of the play to help make your home a stage. With the packets Pink Umbrella sends to families comes a “forest bag.” The bag was put together by the character Tumble the Turtle who placed his favorite things from the forest inside like twigs and leaves and berries that smell sweet.

“There’s also a squirt bottle that has pine essential oil in it so that the families can kind of spray the room that they’re in,” says Katie. “So we feel and use our imagination to feel like we are in the forest.”

“Scavengers!” is the company’s first production. Pink Umbrella Theater is a production company for those who identify with a disability.

“Our tagline is accessible theater for all,” says Katie. “Our mission is to amplify and provide a platform for artists and actors who identify with a disability. We are a professional theater company so everybody gets paid for their time. The goal of the company is for it to be fully run by individuals who identify with a disability.”

Katie came up with the idea of the play as she’s a part of the national coalition Theater for Young Audiences. She says a member of the group expressed sadness that their home was no longer a magical place for their four-year-old due to the pandemic and that got Katie thinking.

“I was like, ‘Oh, how can we create magic?’” says Katie. “I met with our two playwrights, Vanessa Loxton and James Fletcher, and gave them all these ideas that were in my brain about sensory immersive and how do we create a stage in a variety of homes. This was the play that they came back with; this beautiful story of friendship and accepting one another and solving these riddles along the way.”

The play will run until this weekend, Feb. 5, 6 and 7. The Saturday and Sunday shows will have ASL interpreters. Tickets are available at pinkumbrellatheater.org.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

We Rise celebrates the past, present and future of Black artists in theater

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“I’m just thrilled to talk about our Black History Month celebration,” says Rajendra Maharaj, Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s associate artistic director. “It was an opportunity, particularly this year, with all that has been going on in the world for us to look at the past, the present and the future [of theater]. You can’t think of modern day theater without starting with the queen of modern day theater, Miss Lorraine Hansberry.”

You heard it from Rajendra; the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is celebrating Black History Month with their “We Rise” series. Rajendra is producing and hosting events through out the month of February. Each Monday night the Rep will hold conversations with Black theater artists on the theme of the past, present and future of theater.

The Rep is kicking the month off by paying tribute to Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine is the first African American female playwright to have a play performed on Broadway. That play is “A Raisin in the Sun,” named from Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred.” Rajendra says that Lorraine’s work is very relevant to today.

“I think more than ever, why it’s important to honor Lorraine is that the issues in that play speak to the heart of the American experience,” says Rajendra. “I think that it illuminates a part of our society that we often forget. That there is such grace and labor in every part of the African American experience..”

Rajendra has directed his own version of “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Arkansas Repertory Theater. Rajendra says he looks forward to sharing Lorraine’s work as a feminist and as a lesbian.

“She was actually married to a white man, for many years,” says Rajendra. “At the end of her life, as she was battling cancer, [she] just couldn’t lie anymore about who she was. She came out and when you are the first you bear the brunt of that in history. You bear the celebration later in life, but in the moment, you bear a lot of ignorance and envy.”

As part of its look at Lorraine’s life and work, Milwaukee Rep will  host conversations with actress Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, who was in the movies “What’s Love Got to do With It?” and “New Jack City.” Phyllis worked with Rajendra in his version of “A Raisin in the Sun” in the Arkansas Repertory Theater and will be bringing her perspective on what it was like to work on Lorraine Hansberry’s plays. Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, will also be in conversations along with others.

Check out the Milwaukee Repertory Theater for its conversations honoring Lorraine. We’ll be live streaming their Black History Month conversations on our Facebook page.

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