A revolutionary project

One of the most commonplace and least accurate characterizations of El Sistema is as a “revolutionary social project.” As I noted in my first blog post, El Sistema draws inspiration from moralistic, reformist, proselytizing music education programs from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, programs that were the opposite of revolutionary even back then. If El Sistema bucks a trend, that trend would be progressive developments in music education since the 1970s.

For this reason, I find the establishment of “Sistema Europe” to be more than slightly tautologous, for all the good intentions of those involved. The core of El Sistema is warmed-up ideas from the European past in the first place (music of the middle and upper classes as reforming the morals of the working class and making them more productive, poor people as potential delinquents who must not be left to their own devices, music as a defense against the temptations of alcohol (now drugs), and so on). And now it’s being sold back to Europe again as a funky new idea from Venezuela. The phrase “coals to Newcastle” springs to mind.

The thorough conservatism of El Sistema is readily apparent if one views the project through a historical lens, but it also shines through clearly if one compares the Venezuelan system to a truly revolutionary cultural or educational program. There are many possible candidates, but for the sake of brevity let me choose just one, also from South America: Brazil’s Pontos de Cultura program.

(The references here are to Célio Turino, Punto de Cultura: El Brasil de abajo hacia arriba – the clunky translations are mine, though having already been translated from Portuguese, the Spanish is a bit odd in places too).

Pontos de Cultura are “culture hotspots” funded by the Brazilian government but largely left to their own devices when it comes to choosing and running their own activities. The Ministry of Culture does not determine how the funds that it allocates should be used; each Ponto develops its program according to its own needs and desires. Money may be spent on facilities, equipment, teaching, or cultural production. Some Pontos focus on theatre, others on dance, others on music, and others still on audiovisual production. Cultural forms may come from the street or the academy, be experimental or traditional, and reflect the perspectives of the young and the old, the centre and the periphery, and different ethnic groups.

Traditional, large-scale, top-down schemes to take culture to the masses tend to curb their autonomy and capacity for leadership, and hence commonly lead to dependence. Presenting the elite as the fount of knowledge and good taste and denying the majority the opportunity to make its own choices, argues Turino, is a means of reproducing the existing class structure. The Pontos de Cultura, in contrast, aim at emancipation, at breaking down social and political hierarchies.

Turino sums up the program’s theory in a simple equation (69):

autonomy + leadership = breaking relations of dependence

[if anyone has a better suggestion for protagonismo than leadership, please let me know – I’m struggling with that word]

Turino thus identifies in Ponto de Cultura a new critical response to Brazil’s historical inequities at the hands of an elite that looked overseas for direction: ‘Good things come from abroad!’ was the message transmitted by having their clothes ironed in France or, in the present day, using their Rolex watches” (128).

[which dashing Venezuelan conductor advertises Rolex watches? Answers on a postcard]

In the 21st-century, then, a new paradigm is emerging in Brazil: ordinary people no longer have to wait for the master (el maestro) to tell them what to do – now their own knowledge and capacities are being valorized. The central logic of Ponto de Cultura is to believe in Brazilian people and culture as they currently are, rather than treat them as defective and in need of correction, and hence to boost what already exists. The Ponto de Cultura program is not about the government providing culture or a service: “its focus is not on lack, on the absence of goods and services, but rather on the potential and capacity to act on the part of individuals and groups” (67).

It is a decentralized project that promotes autonomy; the paternalist role of the state is pared back to a minimum. Cultural authorities now understand that “a policy of access to culture has to go beyond simply offering artistic workshops, spaces and cultural products; it has to be understood in a broad way, expressed in a program that respects the autonomy of social agents, strengthens their capacity for leadership, and generates social empowerment” (129). As an example of the empowerment that the program seeks, Turino presents the example of an active, diverse Ponto run by young people themselves.

Turino’s book is subtitled “Brazil from the bottom up,” and it presents a vision of a world in which “things are changing, since those at the bottom no longer want to be governed like before” (21). “A bottom-up state presupposes a change in mentalities and values. It’s necessary to overcome the temptation to plan in offices, ignoring what is really going on, and the uncontrolled desire of the governing class and cultural managers to take on the role of founders or demiurges, disdaining [others’] experiences and histories. Decisions are arrived at in autocratic ways; or, in a display of ingenuous romanticism, a single solution is sought, applicable independently of local realities and needs” (130). In this new world, there is no room for a singular, paternalistic guiding vision – no conductor at the centre of the picture.

Ponto de Cultura forms part of the broader program called Cultura Viva, which focuses on widening access, but “not to culture, since culture is inherent in human action and everyone does it, but rather to organized cultural goods – performance venues, recording studios, courses, and regular artistic programming – since the majority of the population is divorced from these resources. The strategy that was adopted went down a different path from that normally adopted in official meetings: instead of doing something separate from reality, we tried to boost what already exists, striking agreements and making alliances with dynamic cultural agents who are already active in their communities. We also avoided the single form or the imposition of rigid rules. Instead of doing for, we managed to do with. Instead of imposing, making available” (130).

Ponto de Cultura rejects the paternalism of obliging disadvantaged social groups to speak in another’s voice. Rather than employing individuals in the service of an institutional ideology dictated from above, it aims to liberate them and empower them to realize their creative potential. Here we really do see a new, and arguably revolutionary, conception of cultural policy, one being implemented “from the bottom up.”

The contrast with El Sistema is abundantly clear. El Sistema sees popular zones as cultural deserts that it must fill; it hears a barrio without classical music as silent. “For me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people,” said Abreu, ignoring the fact that poor people already had access to music – just not to his music. Ponto de Cultura, in contrast, believes that Brazilian communities are already culturally rich and simply need more resources. For decades, El Sistema promoted “a single solution […], applicable independently of local realities and needs,” as Turino puts it, and it still believes the symphony orchestra to be the answer to every problem, in Venezuela or around the world. Ponto de Cultura has no program, no institutional hierarchy of cultural value that it seeks to reproduce, and it can thus take on a huge variety of forms.

Unusually, Turino rejects the current neoliberal orthodoxy of utilitarian justifications for culture (what he calls “facile rhetoric of cultural inclusion”), and offers an alternative to El Sistema’s strategy of placing the social at the centre: “Ponto de Cultura works with popular culture and social inclusion and has a clear role in citizenship, but it is, above all, a cultural program. Culture as interpretation of the world, as expression of values and sentiments. Culture as mutual understanding and drawing together. In this sense it would be more accurate to identify the action of Ponto de Cultura as taking place in the field of ethics” (81). Interestingly, utilitarian justifications have become so normal that making the case for culture in cultural terms is the radical position today.

I’m sure this is an idealized vision of Ponto de Cultura; large schemes like this are never as perfect in reality as they are on the page. Turino was heavily involved in creating the project, so his view is far from impartial. I’d welcome comments, corrections, or criticism from anyone who has first-hand experience of the Pontos de Cultura. But even at the level of theory, the Pontos de Cultura are coming from a very different place than El Sistema, and from a much more radical place – 21st-century South America, rather than 19th-century Europe.

8 thoughts on “A revolutionary project

  1. Geoff,
    I have not had the opportunity to observe a program of Ponto de Cultura. From what you say, I can certainly imagine its power.

    However, I am dismayed by your impulse to promote Ponto de Cultura and similar programs by heaping criticism and scorn on El Sistema.
    It’s important to clarify that we are dealing with a fundamental disagreement over basic principles. You endorse “autonomy” as the most important cultural value, the single most important aspect of music education. El Sistema is based on a belief that “inclusion” is the most central value. Your basic assumption is that helping people to develop individuality and to differentiate themselves from one another is the prime goal. El Sistema’s basic assumption is that helping children feel secure, loved, and included in a social and artistic enterprise is the prime goal.

    Clearly, both are worthy goals. I don’t disparage your assumption, and don’t doubt the worth of the programs you cite – nor would anyone involved in the Sistema. There is great value in helping children achieve autonomy. But there is also great value in helping children to achieve inclusion in community. Both goals are commendable and legitimate. Why is it that you are unable to promote your goal without attacking the value of El Sistema?

    As for your method of attack – your many assertions that El Sistema is nothing but a warmed-over idea from the European past – it seems to me a willful distortion of history. Never in the past have Latin American children, with Latin American founders, conductors, and teachers, been included (and that is the central point) in children’s and youth orchestras and choirs on the scale, and with the mission, of what El Sistema has created. Europe didn’t foist this idea upon Venezuela. Europe didn’t even know about El Sistema until the last decade. El Sistema, with núcleos in hundreds of towns and villages across the country, has a strongly indigenous dimension, in that the director of each núcleo adapts the central vision to fit the needs of its particular community of children and families.

    Your remark that Abreu “sees a barrio without classical music as silent” is blatantly false. Every time I have talked with Abreu, he has spoken forcefully of the deep musicality of Venezeulan culture. In every núcleo I have visited, children play a great deal of folk and indigenous music. The cuatro is ubiquitous. El Sistema makes it possible for children to be immersed both in classical music and in the music of their cultural heritage.

    Finally, I must question your disdain for the idea of “music as a defense against the temptations of alcohol (now drugs), and so on.” Every arts program that serves poor and at-risk children – even, I would venture to guess, Ponto de Cultura – includes within its vision the idea that art-making can fill a void for these children that might otherwise lead them into self-destructive behavior. To dismiss this idea as moralistic and proselytizing is pure cynicism.

    In summary, I object to your unwillingness to consider the possibility that El Sistema’s fundamental goal of inclusion might co-exist with your goal of autonomy. In an ideal world, these two goals would inspire music educators to collaborate and explore ways to realize both. Your insistence on discrediting El Sistema makes that ideal impossible even to hope for.

  2. Geoff,
    Three general responses to your latest posting.

    1. I didn’t know about Ponto de Cultura, and it sounds interesting. I will find out more. Thank you.

    2. In one of your last few posts you proposed your role as a truth teller, factually pointing out unsubstantiated claims about El Sistema–not that the claims are necessarily false, but that the research doesn’t yet let some statements be planted as fact. You argued the value of that role, and i agree. But the early parts of your recent post are a gattling gun of your opinions and preferences, not that role you proposed for yourself at all. Opinions are fine, most people have lots of them, but please don’t call them something more than they are—firing off opinions may feel good to you, but it doesn’t help anyone grow wiser about helping kids. Perhaps you could make distinctions in your posts between the sections where you are giving opinions, and the sections where you are indeed taking a more substantive role as critical friend, pointing out gaps and factual inconsistencies.

    3. As I read your latest salvo of negative statements about El Sistema, I shake my head. At the most basic level there is a simple disagreement. You seem to believe, as do many others, that the main purpose of arts education is to foster individual creative voice and identity. I agree this is a power of the arts and arts education; I have dedicated much of my life to learning about and helping others do this well because it matters so much. However, the main purpose in El Sistema is the growth to be found in group endeavor, creating beauty as responsible and caring parts of a greater whole. Many other kinds of arts education share this purpose, and foster it in powerful ways. I celebrate this work too—in El Sistema as it grows around the world, and in other programs in all the art forms, around the world. Geoff, both are good. Both do wonderful things for young people. Both answer deep needs in young people, often providing antidotes for the influences of the cultures in which they are raised; both provide the deep benefits of artistry. What I don’t understand, Geoff, is why you relentlessly disapprove of the beautiful work they do just because you prefer something else? You don’t like the way orchestras foster learning; others do. Fine. What is not OK about celebrating, supporting, and encouraging both? Are you proposing that El Sistema work INJURES children?–if you are, I would demand that you produce research proof, just as you demand so often of El Sistema’s claims of benefit. What is not OK about developing the artistry in young people in a variety of ways? You have accused El Sistema of authoritarianism; to disapprove of them because they work with kids in ways other than you prefer smacks of authoritarian tendencies to me.

  3. Eric,

    You make a sharp distinction between facts and opinions, and dismiss the latter. Your own work is full of opinions and projections of your beliefs and desires, which is fine – how could it be any other way? So is mine. And that’s good: there’s nothing more important than people arguing the case for X or Y on the basis of their beliefs. But you talk as though opinions and facts are unrelated. My opinions are based on a year of research in Venezuela, building on 15 years of research on music in Latin America. I’m a professional researcher on music in Latin America, so I don’t think I’m being big-headed in saying that my opinions carry more weight than those of someone who has read a couple of articles about El Sistema in the NYT. I have an opinion about why my tooth is hurting right now, but it’s probably wrong, and my dentist is almost certain to be closer to the truth.

    Your starting point and ending point is that El Sistema does “beautiful work.” My starting point was “does El Sistema do beautiful work?” I think the answer to that question is far more complicated than most people allow, and far too complex to get into in a blog post.

  4. Your example of Pontos de Cultura as a comparison to El Sistema is interesting and Brazil is to be applauded for making these cultural spots as available and open as they have. However, based on your description, it seems to me that Pontos de Cultura does not actually differ very much from what is happening in El Sistema inspired programs throughout the world. I understand there are differences in rhetoric, stated goals, and perceived hierarchies between El Sistema and Pontos de Cultura, but what is actually happening in El Sistema varies widely from one program to the next and is very often comes from the bottom-up.

    El Sistema is decidedly decentralized outside of Venezuela and is in fact relatively decentralized within Venezuela itself. Within El Sistema programs, there are significant differences in what is taught and how it is taught and, in most cases, these decisions are made locally and inclusively. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, deaf and hard of hearing students have learned Brazilian percussion through an El Sistema program; our colleagues in Scotland tell stories of simply meeting parents of their students for tea to learn about their musical backgrounds and to gain insight into the best methods for teaching their children; young El Sistema musicians in Juneau, Alaska, learn step dance routines, play in a blues band before school, and learn Suzuki violin during the school day; in Venezuela, Latin jazz and traditional music fill the nucleos; just today I received a (symbolic) Facebook invitation to a concert of Beatles songs arranged for percussion ensemble that my former students are putting on in Merida, Venezuela; here in Austin, Texas, our students are producing radio programs, developing arrangements of their favorite pop songs and busking at farmers markets, and will this year be planning their own community concerts.

    Your comments are truly interesting from a sociological and philosophical standpoint, however I’m not sure how much they illuminate what is truly happening within Pontos de Cultura, within El Sistema, and within the numerous other programs that don’t have a comparable amount of PR inertia behind them. For me, as a young person still figuring out how I want my love for the arts to unfold into something that might one day be vaguely described as a career, I am currently less interested in making judgments about programs and organizations based on their philosophical underpinnings, rhetoric, funding source, or specific type of art being taught. I don’t say this because I have some kind of youthful “ignorance is bliss” chip on my shoulder, or some aversion to structure, hierarchy, and formal organizations. Instead, with each day I work each in the arts, experience the arts, and read about the arts, I am increasingly interested in a single question that helps me to evaluate and better understand arts programs. My question is:

    “Does this arts program support and allow an individual with a passion in the arts to share it with someone else in an authentic, meaningful way?”

    I don’t think poor kids, rich kids, or middle class kids need European classical music. They don’t need hip hop and pop music. They don’t need more access to technology. They could use more fruits and vegetables. They don’t need tennis. They don’t necessarily need access to any one subject area or activity more than any other. What they do need is at least one person in their life, outside of their immediate family, who truly and passionately cares for them. They need one person who is passionate about something (passionate about anything). They need one person who has a strong desire to share their passion and provide them a lens for caring about something. They need someone whose passion is, to the next person, completely arbitrary. At first it can seem easy, even responsible, to dismiss the value of artistic passions when there are such vast, global needs for basic provisions like food, housing, and healthcare. But, there is something about the arbitrary-ness of each of our chosen passions that allows us to not necessarily forget the daunting societal challenges, but to imagine that they can be overcome.

    I would kindly ask, and even gently insist, that you not impose divisions and not invent dichotomies between spaces for cultural dialogue and artistic creation. There are already too many barriers and silos amongst cultures, ethnic groups, pedagogies, and within the arts. Why criticize the structure of one and uplift the other when both are contributing vast amounts of good and catalyzing a world of creative minds. When we, those who actually care about the arts, impose and invent barriers, we weaken our collective voice and confuse our publics.

    Those of us who believe in the arts, and want others to have the experience of learning in the arts, simply search for a venue and a “delivery method” for something we care about. Our lives take different paths and therefore some individuals may find their way to a Sistema center, others a Ponto de Cultura, and others a quiet spot in a public park. Once we arrive, either temporarily or perhaps for a long stretch of time, we create ourselves through the work of teaching others and we hope that maybe others can create themselves, too. Our attitudes and beliefs may change and certainly the organizations and cultural policy trends will evolve, but, as this happens, we need only return to our own guiding question. For me, as I’ve stated, my current guiding question is this:

    “Does this arts program support and allow an individual with a passion in the arts to share it with someone else in an authentic, meaningful way?”

    For El Sistema, I believe the answer is Yes. And for Pontos de Cultura, I would imagine it is Yes as well. I’m wondering if we can, for the time being, simply be okay with that.

  5. Patrick,

    Thanks for a great post.

    I should underline that I write about the Venezuelan Sistema, unless I specify otherwise. This is what I have researched. I have very little information about projects in other countries, but what you describe in the U.S. sounds promising. If such programs are taking a bottom-up approach, that’s a big step in the right direction.

    Since this is a space for debate, I have to take up something I disagree with, even though there’s a lot I like in your post – and that’s the idea that I’m “inventing dichotomies.” The contrast between Pontos de Cultura and El Sistema is exceptionally clear if you read Turino’s book. They are coming from completely different places, and embody opposed philosophies about education, culture, and development, as Turino says so clearly.

    I’m interested in understanding El Sistema and having more in-depth debates about it, and that means not lumping all arts education programs together and saying “they’re all doing good in their own way.” To me, it is perfectly obvious that different programs have different strengths and weaknesses, and it’s essential to explore rather than blur those differences in order to make informed decisions about cultural policy. Pontos de Cultura and El Sistema come from very different places, literally – mid-1970s Venezuela and mid-2000s Brazil – and they encapsulate and reproduce very different visions of society. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate, indeed urgent, question to ask which of these visions we want to pursue in 2013.

    Education is inescapably ideological, and I think that anyone who is going to participate in or fund an educational project needs to understand as best they can what ideology they are signing up to. In Brazil, this is relatively straightforward, because Pontos de Cultura emerged as a small part of a huge political movement, and its political and ideological alignments are made very explicit (e.g. in Turino’s book). El Sistema is much harder to read, because it has aligned itself with radically different political positions during its history, and hence it tries hard to cover its political tracks – which is why people who are uninformed view it as apolitical. It’s precisely the fact that it is so hard to read that makes me both want to research it in depth and share my analysis with people who haven’t had the opportunity to spend a year in Venezuela, in the full knowledge that no analysis is perfect but the belief that some are better than others.

  6. I think it’s worth adding a footnote about the word “autonomy,” which I translated literally from the Spanish “autonomía.” Perhaps I should have used the word “empowerment” instead. The idea of “autonomía” (and the idea that Turino is getting at) is that the individual or group has the power to make its own decisions, rather than being told what to do be someone higher up in a hierarchical system.

    So, to give a simple example, a Sistema that promoted autonomy/empowerment would be one that gave the núcleo its own budget and let it design its own program – which might not include classical music, or might not even include music at all. As soon as you have an institution that says “you have to focus on the symphony orchestra because it’s good for you,” you remove most of the participants’ autonomy, and replace it with a time-honoured patriarchal system in which the elite decides what’s best for everyone else, and access to funds depends on conforming to this view.

  7. Geoff, your post on the work being done in Brazil is very inspiring.
    I would love to learn more about this approach to fostering creativity in arts teaching from the ‘bottom up’. In the US, we have a non-profit organization called Young Audiences that sounds similar. Artists are given funds to bring their discipline to the community through workshops and classes in schools. There is no top-down curriculum. The mission is to provide underserved areas with creative arts programming. The Brazilian government is to be applauded for funding this kind of initiative.

    My question to you is whether it is possible or even useful to compare an approach that does not declare itself to any one art-form to the Venezuelan El Sistema program which never set out to be free-flowing in this way? Apples and oranges come to mind…

    Abreu was clear from the first day, that he wanted to create symphony orchestras. He loves symphonic music and passionately believes that orchestral communities are healthy places for children to grow and learn. He set out to create youth orchestras throughout his country for children in all segments of society.

    In 2011, we spent 5 weeks criss-crossing Venezuela as part of the NEC El Sistema fellowship and here are some of our observations:

    Now that El Sistema has grown, children can find a wide variety of musical outlets in Venezuelan nucleos. Initially, nucleo leaders focus on the task of building youth orchestras that share enough in common with other programs to create a bridge. Once that is accomplished and numbers grow, teachers are given greater flexibility. The bigger the nucleo, the wider the variety of offerings.

    For example, if a nucleo is in a village or high up in the mountains, you might only have a handful of teachers offering an orchestra and a choir.

    But in a bigger city such as Merida or Barquisimeto, there are also chamber music groups, percussion ensembles and private lessons. Additionally, in these cities, Special Needs programs for youth with a wide variety of disabilities are integrated. These students play in percussion ensembles, chamber orchestras (mixed with non-disabled youth playing at the same level), bell choirs and some study piano.

    Throughout the country, we saw El Sistema nucleos that did not have an orchestra: in Guarico, we visited two schools that have programs exclusively for native instrument ensembles and choirs. In Barquisimeto, the Latin Band is one of the premier ensembles. This summer, the White Hands Chorus for deaf children will perform as part of the El Sistema presentations at the Salzburg Festspiele.

    I was impressed by the number of children playing multiple instruments in multiple styles equally well. Unforgettable was the deaf drummer and violinist whose teachers had learned sign language just to better teach him.

    In summary, while El Sistema centers around the orchestra, by far not all El SIstema students play in an orchestra and many that do, play in other ensembles as well. The most dedicated students play in various styles and take private lessons as well. Some college-age students stay at the nucleo from sunrise to sunset, acting both as teachers to younger kids and as students of professionals while school children might come only for the choir or orchestra rehearsal. The bigger the nucleo, the more variety of programming.

    But no matter where we went, the nucleo was alive with students and teachers sharing a desire to make music together and to tackle difficult musical challenges. This musical desire finds different channels, depending upon the size of the nucleo and the individual teachers.

    But the central idea of El Sistema was always to create orchestras that can connect children at regional or national gatherings through shared repertoire. Abreu created a framework to channel the Venezuelan love for shared music making into the creation of high-quality touring symphony orchestras. He had a dream and he achieved it.

    It sounds like Brazil is trying a decentralized approach in which teachers can decide for themselves which arts discipline to teach.

    Some kids will want that kind of arts experience and others will enjoy the ‘team sports” of playing in a youth orchestra or band or singing in a choir. Some might want both kinds of exposure. Our world will be richer for being able to give them all these opportunities in the arts.

    Apples and oranges.

  8. Isabel,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and nicely expressed post.

    You raise the question of whether it’s useful or possible to compare El Sistema and Pontos de Cultura. I would argue (unsurprisingly) that it is. They are both very large, South American, state-funded culture and education programs – hence eminently comparable. And the comparison is implicit in Turino’s account of the Brazilian program, in which he rejects top-down, centralized models of cultural policy, of which El Sistema is a prime example. In other words, the kind of comparison that I make in this blog is being made in Brazil, where those in charge of making cultural policy over the last decade have been grappling with the deficiencies of old models and trying to create new ones. So by writing in this way, I’m reflecting an important strand of thinking on the ground in South America.

    Also, the point of this post was to challenge the idea that El Sistema is a revolutionary project. There are various ways to do that: one is to take a historical view, which I did before; here I opted for comparison. Holding up two objects for comparison can be revealing, and this particular comparison says a lot about the aptness of the word “revolutionary.”

    A lot of people around the world are inspired by El Sistema, but when I see the words “revolutionary social program,” I’m concerned that they don’t fully understand the program. I think that we can have more productive conversations about El Sistema once we recognize that (a) its ideas are centuries old and historically associated with the maintenance of class structures (i.e. conservative), and (b) its ideas are being challenged by more revolutionary approaches in other parts of South America, which receive a fraction of the publicity but may actually be more progressive in their orientation.

    There’s a kind of historical irony around the fact that El Sistema only became widely known in the global North around 6 years ago, so we tend to think of it as a new idea. But it emerged in the mid-1970s, and thinking about culture and education has changed hugely in Latin America (and elsewhere) since then. Today, new ideas are coming from elsewhere.

    This is all much more than word games. Many in the UK who are attracted to El Sistema are progressively minded people who think that the program reflects their values, i.e. the “revolutionary” tag is really important. So if it’s being misapplied, that’s also really important. It’s revealing that the best writing I’ve seen by UK journalists on El Sistema has appeared in a conservative newspaper, The Telegraph, for which I have no personal sympathy. The Telegraph recognizes conservatism when it sees it.

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