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Giorgio Di Lecce

Three tarantulas – Tretarante.

Di Lecce, Giorgio: "Three tarantulas-Tretarante" 15th International Congress on Dance Research, Ioannina, p.65-77. 07-11/11, 2001.

The attarantati are people who were striken by a mysterious illness, supposedly caused by a tarantula bite. The victims fell to the ground, trembling and shaking uncontrollably. Only by submitting to a quasi-religious ceremony could the victims cast out the evil that had invaded their body. Usually some town drummers were called to play for the taranta for many days.

Nowadays three types of attarantati's dance exist:

1. Pizzica-Taranta

This is an individual (and collective) curative dance which originates from the ancient recovery's rite of attarantati and from their pilgrimage to Galatina (a village close to Lecce) and just here the 29th of June 1993 there was the last witness, that is an old woman (an attarantata) danced for the last time after having danced for twenty six years (cfr. Di Lecce, G. La danza della piccola taranta, Roma, 1994).

This dance which has been observed since the Middle Ages, is beaten by rhythms and melodies which are at first slow and then fast. The instances of the folk literature (15th to 20th centuries) describe infinite types of attarantati's dance with several objects and accessories (swords, handkerchiefs, ribbons, mirrors, fans, shells etc.). E. De Martino and his team, together with D. Carpitella (a man who studied ethnomusicology), after going to Salento(Apulia) in the sixties, they claimed that the pizzica-tarantella was the resolutive moment of a mythical-ritual system situated in the context of a wide cultural phenomenon. This dance has been practiced less and less at home or in the church and then it has disappeared. However, it is in people's memory and the therapeutical music is reproposed in concerts and performances, together with the dance.

2. Pizzica de core (or Pizzica of Joy)

Nowadays it is danced in folk festivities, weddings, baptisms, familiar parties. It is, above all, a hopping mixed couple dance, following a fast rhythm. Children, young and old people dance. This dance becomes expression of joy, love (courtship), enthusiasm and passion. In the past, plenty of families danced creating a line of head-on couples or a quadrille. Mr. L. De Simone, a judge, in 1876, in his descriptions, divided the Taranta, the Pizzica-pizzica, and the Tarantella. The first one is the dance of recovery, of which we knew twelve different themes (meudi), such as la Monachella, la Filanda, il Ballo a botta; the second one derives from the first one that is from Tanza de quiddhu ci la Taranta pizzica meaning the dance of the one who is stung by a tarantula. This one, through some choreographic rules, became the Pizzica-pizzica, a dance of Salento. The third one, the Tarantella, which has the tarantula as excuse, is another dance with 6/8 tempo. It is danced in other regions as well. We have the Tarantella of Taranto (a city of Apulia) and the Tarantella of Naples which is more famous then the first one.(cfr.De Simone, L.G. La vita nella terra d'Otranto, Lecce, 1996).

Recently, the young people started to dance the dance again as well, to play drums and tambourines, enjoying themselves in parties, creating groups of folk, techno and rap music.

3. The Pizzica-scherma (Dance of Knives)

People dance this type of dance the night between the 15th and the 16th of August, during S. Rocco's Day in Torrepaduli, near Ruffano (Lecce). It is a ritual, couple dance, or better there are two rivals. In the past the two rival-dancers had knives in their hands. The best drummers were gathered around interminable rounds of dance and challenges which lasted all the night. Nowadays the knives are replaced by the fingers of the hand (forefinger and middle finger), which hit (as sharp knives) the rival's chest. During the "duel" the two rivals dance in an elegant and agile way. Usually men pretend to do this duel and it is accompanied by tambourines and harmonica (mouthorgan); actions, gestures, attacks and parries come from ancient code of honour and respect which regulated the hierarchy and debates in the world of the gypsies, horse traders.

4. The Pizzica-taranta

The attarantati's dance is studied by many people and documented since the XIV century under the name of tarantismo (dance's illness). It was not an aim but a means at Salento people's disposal in order to come out or free themselves from the personal and social troubles and sorrows which afflicted them.

The German doctor: J.F.Hecker mentions in his 1938's publication, whose title is Danzimania (new edition Besa, Nardò 2001) that: from the Middle Ages to XVII century, for sixteen times southern Italy people were hit by plague and epidemics. Towards the end of XV century, whoever was been bitten by a tarantula, he/she went to the place in which the funny Tarantella was sung. There the curious women ran together and just here they caught this illness, not the real poison of the tarantula, but a moral one; therefore the cure of the attarantati became gradually a real folk festivity, which was impatiently waited for.

We must not forget that in northern Europe, in the same period, some whole villages were “infected" by the dancers of Ballo di S.Vito and Ballo di S.Giovanni. From that period to today, some scholars of medical science and ecclesiastical authorities have been intervening in order to deny the folk belief of miraculous powers either of the music or of S.Paolo chapel's well's water in Galatina against the poison of the famous Lycosa Tarantula. The remedy against that poison was not dance, songs and tambourines, but faith and medicine. Nevertheless the medical remedies and the Saints' protection (Paolo, Giovanni, Donato,Vito, Pantaleo) in many Salento inhabitants, the fear of the poisonous animal's bite(Latrodectus o Vedova nera) has remained alive and strong. The need of resorting to the Pizzica-dance, singing and tambourines has remained strong as well, in order to look for a solution to own sufferings. It is interesting to observe that, still in the fifties, M.Schneider(a man who studied ethnomusicology) in his book entitled La danza de la Spada y la Tarantela, published in 1948, claimed that: As regards the Tarantella, it might be one of those "animal" dances, in which the participants identify themselves with certain animals, which are considered as the incarnation of dead spirits, bringing illness and death to men when they are unpleased (...). These dances are as a sort of a rhythmical self-vaccine which brings benefit to the sick person. The animal which caused the illness is recognized and fought through the inversion of all the values, adapting the rhythm to the illness or identifying oneself to the "spirit" o to this same animal. The destructive forces are subjected to the doctor-dancer or singer and they serve to fight and to remove completely these same negative forces, which have placed in the sick person's body(...).

M. Schneider lists the twenty extravagant demonstrations which collect the whole repertoire of curative dances (the ancient danzimanie) described by the written and oral sources.

5. The extravagant demonstrations:

1 - The tarantolati jump, sleep, sing, dig holes, fill them of water and dive into as pigs. 2 - They put their hands, arms, head and neck into the water and they behave as ducks. 3 - They settle themselves at the center of people's circle, and they wave some shells full of water adorned with green grass. 4 - They enjoy themselves among the graves, they go down into the graves and they put themselves into the coffin. 5 - They beat their knees and they roll themselves on the ground as if they were epileptic. 6 - They sigh, scream and shout like dogs and they imagine to be fish. 7 - They lose their memory or voice. They take some mirrors and they look at themselves sighing deeply. 9 - The hour in which they feel more relief is about midday. 10 - They hang themselves down the trees, with their head down. 11 - They are relieved by the singing of swallows and washerwomen. 12 - They cannot go to bed or to have a rest without holding in their hands a shell or a glass vase full of water. 13 - They are relieved by a donkey's trot. 14 - Sometimes they believe they are some kings, sometimes soldiers or shepherds. They make some speeches and claim some luxurious garments and vivid colours. 15 - They wear some grapes' leaves. 16 - They are afraid of dark colours, while they like the pink colour. 17 - A strong erotic note and sometimes a kind of hydrophobia and rather a deep dislike for light water are linked to the red colour. 18 - They ask them to be flogged (feet, back). 19 - A certain dance or music, called chain, can be replaced by the Tarantella. 20 - They take some swords with which they jump, dance, and simulate a duel. They whisper some spells and they put the sword in their mouth or they lie down on it.

6. The Pizzica de core (or Pizzica-pizzica)

This type of dance has arrived till nowadays mainly through memory and word of mouth. It has the specific figures of hopped dance in couples with a courtship or laughing theme. According to the elderly's information, it is the man who goes around the woman, jumping very skillfully. Besides the woman has a proud attitude but at the same time a detached one. She uses a handkerchief as am element of contact and communication. The actions of this dance are composed of some rhythmical halfback and forward alternating hops and the supporting foot is presented to the partner as an invitation. Sometimes the dancer stamps his/her own foot rhythmically together with the tambourine: some people refer all this to the crushing of the spider, others to a request of attention. One of the most remote description of the pizzica goes back to Ceva Grimaldi, who in her 1818's Itinerario da Napoli a Lecce, claimed that: “We can say that the dances are frequent and very funny in whole Otranto land. Women dance with prettiness and men without affectation. The Pizzica (a salentina dance) is one of the nicest dances which Tersicore has ever taught to her dear admirers: we like to describe it to you. A woman begins a ring-dance alone, after a few minutes she throws her handkerchief to one she likes and she invites him to dance with her. Then she changes her partner dismissing the first and calling another and another, until she feels tired and goes to have a rest. Then the last partner has the right to invite other women; so the dance goes on more and more varied and pleasant. When a partner is chosen by the woman through her handkerchief, is obliged to accept her invitation. The audience enjoys itself in watching all this and the malicious female dancers laugh of the magic power of their beauty”. The judge L. De Simone, in 1876, in his La vita nella Terra d'Otranto, claimed that the salentina pizzica, with the addition of some choreographic rules, derived from la Tanza de quiddhu ci la Taranta pizzica(the attarantato's dance) and that variations in the hopped dance of ritual origin were performed, remaining the same rhythmical accompaniment with the tambourine and other instruments. It is know that in the folk culture, it is the dancers to modify the dance movements according to the occasions and more than the real choreographic rules, it is the repetition of pleasant situation (such as festivities, weddings,) to determine the dance movements expressing joy, enthusiasm and love. A rare photo at the beginning of 1900 taken by G.Palumbo, in salentino Grecìa's countryside, shows some peasants who are dancing the tarantella accompanied by a flute and harmonica and a tambourine played by some boys. In this photograph, there are two mixed forward couples who are dancing with a foot behind the other. In O.N.D. Danze Popolari Italiane, published in 1935, there is another description of the pizzica: “The Pizzica-Pizzica is a folk dance with a simple and schematic structure. The figures are a few, and it is the dancers who have to follow the growing rhythm. This ancient dance widespread among Bari's people, is danced in many happy occasions such as baptism, weddings, corn's crop, grapeharvest and so on. A single voice sings with passion improvising the words accompanied by some instruments such as guitar, accordion, tambourine. In the meanwhile the audience claps its hands following the rhythm. In turn the same melody is sung by other participants and the dance rhythm increases its intensity and liveliness until it ends with an exultant scream”. Finally in the D.E.U.M.M. (encyclopedic dictionary on music and musicians), Torino, UTET 1983, page 656, we can read the most recent definition of Pizzica-Pizzica thanks to D.Carpitella: “It is an Apulian Tarantella in which every woman dances with two men in turn (and viceversa), at the sound of a song accompanied by some instruments such as a guitar, an accordion, the cupa-cupa, the tambourine. This song is played during folk festivities or for the musical therapy of tarantism”.

7. The Pizzica-scherma (or fencing dance)

Nowadays, this type of folk dance is still frequently danced in Torrepaduli, a village near Lecce, during the cattle fair and S.Rocco's Day, between the 15th and 16th of August. This festivity in Torrepaduli has become the typical half- summer fair with the traditional processions, musical bands, lights, stalls and fireworks. During this festivity people can drink, eat and enjoy themselves. In the past it was the eagerly awaited meeting place of peasants, shepherds, craftsmen and cattle breeders. They exchanged goods, cattle, lands and often they settled their accounts through illegal means as well.

After midnight the tambourine musicians, who had bought a new tambourine for that occasion, made the rounds. In these rounds, challenger-couple of dancers took turns following the rhythm of salentine pizziche. After shaking hands as an invitation, they started a danza schermata (a fencing dance), with attacks and parries, which were simulated by the fingers, as knives. This dance finished with the elimination of one of the two rivals. The challenges went on till the dawn with joking and provocative tones, while the endurance race of the musicians continued. In reality, behind this apparently climate of festivity and enjoyment, the territorial or familiar superiority of a group on another, was regulated, for example as regards the stalls' position or sale points). In addition, there were groups of Gypsies or horse traders coming from the Eastern countries; these groups distinguished themselves by their style and their particular dance movements. During these festivities everything was and is possible and therefore groups of gangsters or outlaws, who were very good at fighting, took part in these duels.

There is a witness of A. Gramsci, coming from the jail of Castellammare. This witness claims the danza-scherma's transversal origin. A. Gramsci, in one of his letters, dated the 1927, tells that he witnessed a fencing Academy held among prisoners in a carabineers barrack: “... still two days with sixty prisoners. Many parties on my honour are organized; the Romans improvise a wonderful drama school, Pascarella and folk sketches of Roman life of crime. The Apulians, the Calabrians and the Sicilians do a knife's fencing academy, the Sicilians against the Apulians, the Apulians against the Calabrians. War between the Sicilians and the Calabrians must not be made, because between the two, hate is very strong and the academy becomes serious and bloody as well. The Apulians are the teachers: insuperable stabbers, with a lethal technique full of secrets, developed to exceed all the other techniques. An old well-respected apulian of sixty five years old, defeats all the champions of the other countries; and then, at the end, he fences with another agile Apulian, who has an athletic body. In half an hour they develop the normal technique of all famous fencing. All this seemed to me an underground complicated world, full of feelings, points of view, points of honour, very strict and formidable hierarchy. The weapons were simple: spoons, which were rubbed against the wall, so that the lime marked the strokes in the garment”.

Nowadays, during the night of the 15th of August in Torrepaduli, rarely we can see duels of fencing-dance among old fencers: moments of Pizzica de core, with some fencing action made by some Gypsy youngsters or more skilled peasants, prevailed. The large presence of tourists and curious people gives shape to this dance, as a demonstration of extraordinary skills to which a large audience is present.

8. Danzimania: the first tarantella and the last tarantata

With the word danzimania or mania for dance, doctors and ecclesiastics indicate since the Middle Ages that the phenomenon of frenzied collective dances was widespread both in the North of Europe (Ballo di San Vito and Ballo di San Giovanni) and in the South of Italy. This phenomenon was caused by the tarantula bite, from which results the tarantismo or dance illness (cfr. Hecker Danzimania, Nardò, 2001).

The name of the famous taranta or tarantula-spider derives from Taranto, an Apulian city. In several periods, in this area, episodes of poisonous spider bite; The aracnologi (men who study spiders) thought that these episodes were due to the Latrodectus or Black Widow, but common people claimed that they were caused by the biggest and showiest tarantula (cfr. Hecker, op.cit.).

Music, songs and dances, used to cure people bitten by the tarantula (in reality or symbolically) were called tarante and tarantelle at the end of the 16th century. The word tarantella appeared for the first time in a 1608's publication: Nuova scelta di sonate per la chitarra spagnola, composte da Foriano Pico, in Naples ed. G. F. Paci. All this does not mean that before then the term tarantella was not used, but in the documents this words does not exist. Previously we can find clearly indicated the words Tarantula for poisonous spider, attarantati for people bitten by the spider, tarantismo for the dance illness (Mattioli, 1549). (In his Bestiario, Leonard will name the tarante of Taranto as well).

In the Sertum papale de venenis of Guglielmo di Marra da Padua in 1362, we can find the expressions tarante's songs or melodious bite, but on the contrary we cannot find the word tarantella, that will be used a lot in the 17th century thanks to A. Kircher's publications; he is a Jesuit father who transcribed eight musical examples or harmonic clauses. The last tarantata, who did the dance rite of recovery in Galatina, in 1993, was an old woman who received the grace of S. Paolo after twenty six years of dancing (cfr. Di Lecce, 1994).

Beyond the philological and musicological discussions (which however attest the importance and the scientific value of the research), through this musical and dance trip, we can live again the tarantelle music, which arrived to us not only through oral tradition (through memory) but also thanks to the scrupolous musical transcriptions, which are refined and semi-refined. The common thing is that these tarantelle are tarantelle for dances and in particular for curative or recovery dances, which since the end of the 6th century arrive till the present.

There is a wide musical and dance heritage available to the healers-musicians; the variety of the musical characteristics (aria turchesca, siciliana, napoletana, pugliese, tono hypodorico e tono frigio, arie romantiche and tarante rintese), which with the relative variations and improvisations formed the determinant part of the various danze-tarantelle, which are a big and varied family, a fruit of the South Italy's folk culture.

The tradition of dances, songs and sounds came from the world and the most ancient and deepest traditional culture and from men and women who, according to Gades they were obliged to nod their heads for many times and that at least once, in dancing, they can hold up the trunk of their human bodies erect, in Spanish pride, or to jump and to delight in the liberation of the South Italy’s Tarantella. An elusive thing, an inner force moves and goes through these codes which are acquired through imitation and liking. They characterize a Mediterranean energy.

In the Greek antiquity people spoke about enthusiasmos, the dancers of flamenco spoke about duende, the Griko-salentini name the taranta as symbol and stimulus: it could be an occasion of redemption, an occasion to find again an expression (dance and musical expression) for 2001's young people as well. This CD is like a musical and dance trip addressing the present through the time and the rituals of recovery made by the South of Italy people over the centuries.

The modern society has several answers to questions caused by the needs of poor people: there are medicines, hospitals, better food, etc. However a strong demand of meeting, distraction, a search of a new ecstasy: we wish these tarantelle-dances and songs, can sublimate sufferings, stress, anxiety for a night, an hour, a day. We wish a positive Danzimania accompany those future generations who want to get information from the most ancient sources.                                                                      

9. Historical notes

Around the 10th century, people knew a spider called tarantula, which was able to create trouble to them. The Latrodectus or black wider was more dangerous; its poison could bring to death. The two types of spiders lived and continue to live today in Italy and on the Mediterranean coasts.

Sertum papale de venenis, the first document of Guglielmo di Marra from Padua (published in 1362) claims that this practice spread throughout the South of Italy, because of some venomous bite's episodes treated by music and dance. Beginning from the 14th century, this dance was considered curative, that is it was able to recover from the hypothetical venom of tarantula. The attarantato was stimulated by particular rhythms of drum, sounds and colours. Later, in 1600. These songs and dances, coming from the area of Taranto, were called tarantelle.

The presence of these dangerous poisonous spiders is documented by some Greek and Latin authors, since antiquity: Solino, in 250, already indicated some deaths caused by Latrodectus in Creta's island. Still a 600's Cretan print tells that: what the ancients called Phalangium is a type of insect that the Greeks of this island (Creta) still call Sphalangi. It is a very dangerous animal; it is big like a spider and very different. It has eight feet, four at every side, and other legs which have their articulations and joints which ends into two little bent claws. These legs are disposed in a particular way, so that it can go on and go back with the same easiness and agility. Therefore, the forelegs seem to walk to a sense, the hindlegs to another. It usually excavates sideways in the ground into some deep holes. It enters the hole backwards, above all when it brings food into the hole. It covers the entrance of the hole with straw. This is the description of the tarantula!

According to the German naturalist W. Katner (1956) who participated to De Martino's expedition, these dancing epidemics expressed themselves as folk festivities beginning from the 17th century. Musicians and participants came from different villages and women were the main protagonists. Apulian people, who are very traditionalist, obliged the Church to adapt the Christianity for those folk traditions, that is to make its Christian calendar coincide with the days of the local traditional festivities, to build its churches closed to the temples and to substitute the ancient Gods with its Saints. Anyway festivities with headlong dances were unacceptable to the Church and they were forbidden. Even so, people went on to make these rites deeply spread in the population during the Middle Ages; They were made far away from the official religious functions until today to become folk dances during the local festivities.

During these folk occasions, the most unruly dancers were considered like attarantati. They pretend that they have been bitten by some animals which were born in Taranto's area (from which their name derives) and to fall into illness which makes them crazy. They vibrate, beat their head, their knees tremble, they often sing and dance at the sound, they move their lips, their teeth creak and they act like mad. They do not ask anything, but the partner, notifying that he is attarantato, asks and takes the collection for them: oh what a talent, oh what an unheard-of art for the past centuries!!! (R. Frianoro, Il Vagabondo, Viterbo, 1621).

10. Hellenic of Salento

Nowadays, only nine villages remain of the twenty two villages that formed the Hellenophone (Greek-speaking) zone of Salento in the 15th century: Calimera, Castrignano, Corigliano, Martano, Martignano, Melpignano, Soleto, Sternatia, Zollino.

There are not sufficient historical data in order to verify where the modern Hellenophones came from and when they came to Salento. The ancient historians speak about colonies founded by the Greeks in the 8th century on Southern Italy's coasts and Sicilia's coasts (Magna Grecia), where till today there are Italian towns which have Greek names: Otranto (the ancient Hydrous), Taranto (Taras), Sibari, Reggio, Taormina, etc. There is evidence during the first years of the Roman rule, speaking about the movement population towards the Aspromonte. The Greek element of the South Italy was reinvigorated throughout the years of the Byzantine period, by the arrival of new colonists.

The Basilian monks founded some monasteries during the period of iconoclasm. In 1870, Morosi, in his study on Apulian Greeks’ language claimed that the language belonged to the Byzantine period, that is the 9th century. The German linguist Gerhard Rohlfs claimed that the Greek linguistic tradition of the Southern Italy was never interrupted since the time of the first colonists of Magna Grecia.

The songs in the CD have been collected by the scholar V. D. Palumbo around the 1880 in the province of Lecce. These songs reached us thanks to the memory of some old choristers of the Greek-speaking villages in the Salento. The different moments of life in the villages and in the Salentina countryside are stressed by songs and dances: lullabies, serenades and morning-song for the lovers, ditties for the challenges among people of the same village, the tarantelle and pizziche for moments of joy and festivity (engagement, wedding, etc.), the moroloja to accompany the dead to the last home. Griki dialects (Greek dialects) spoken nowadays are different from village to village and they interlace with words of other salentini dialects, creating a particular musicality that can be compared to the ancient Greek language used by some choristers.

The phenomenon of the attarantati has been present till today in the Salentina Greece (Grecia Salentina), upholding the rhythm and remote rites. For example, the pizzica entitled Rirollala, is divided into two parts: the first one is sorrowful and rhythmical, the second one is fast and measured, answering to the "request" of the attarantata, who goes from melancholy to liberation through music and dance. Turkish and oriental influences characterize several songs, showing the stratification of an area like the Salentina one, which is a bridge and a privileged port for the landing of the populations overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

11. The Arakne Mediterranea Group

The Arakne Mediterranea group, which is coordinated and directed by Giorgio Di Lecce, has been producing good results for ten years in Salento together with the University of Lecce and local and provincial administrations. It is composed of artists, scholars and researchers; its aim is to spread and keep alive the traditions, the dances, the songs, the Salentine folk expressions' customs and habits. The group toured both in Italy and abroad with the audience and musical criticism's consent:

1993 Festival dei Carabi, Santiago - Cuba

1994 Festival di Babilonia, Bagdad - Iraq

1995 Festival Musicale del Mediterraneo, Genova

1996 Festival della Calanda, Brasov - Romania

1996 Festival di Atene, Salonicco e Creta - Grecia

1997 Festival di Voci, Perpignan - Francia

1997 Festival delle Televisioni, Pechino - Cina

1998 Incontro dei Ministri della Cultura Europei, Rodi - Grecia

1998 Festival della Danza, Nizza - Francia

1998 Festival di Berlino - Germania

1999 Festival del Canto, Guascogna - Francia

1999 Festa Italiana della Tarantella, Tokio; Osaka - Giappone

1999 Festival di Musiche del Sud, Parigi - Francia

1999 Festival della Musica WOMEX, Berlino - Germania

2000 Festival Sconfini, C.N.I. - Roma

2000 Festival T.N.R., Lubania - Slovenia

2000 Festival Internazionale di Atene - Grecia

2000 Festival di Terra d'Otranto, Lecce

2000 Festival La Notte della Taranta, Gerca Sal. - Lecce

2000 Festival New Age, Trieste

2001 Festival I suoni della terra, Palermo

2001 Festival Neotarantismo, DFV - Roma

2001 Workshop Italia-Grecia - Università di Lecce

12. Discography

1998 Attarantati ieri - ed. Al Sur (Parigi)

1998 Attarantati oggi - ed. Al Sur (Parigi)

2000 Tretarante - ed. CNI Record (Roma)La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno

2001 Danzimania . Tarante e Tarantelle dal 1500 ad oggi.- ed. CNI, distr. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, Bari/Lecce.

2001 Gramma - ed. Arakne, Lecce

In the 2000, the song Pizzica (aria di Ostuni) has been used for   the soundtrack of the film "Liberate i pesci"(director L. Comencini). Arakne group follows as much as possible the folk tradition concerning the recent past, as it is expressed and transmitted from the previous generations. These generations have transmitted directly their passion for the pizzica and folk songs.

Giorgio Di Lecce



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