Paul Fontelo '13

After my mini-vacation in Pagsanjan Falls, I made a day trip to the northern city of Baguio, capital city of Benguet in the Cordillera mountain region.  Situated in the Philippines’ northern region of Luzon, this city boasts foreign qualities to the tropical nation.  With it’s vegetation, mountainous terrain, and lower temperatures; this city confused me for Westchester County, NY, western Pennsylvania, or even one of the Dakotas.  Even more distressing was being able to purchase fresh broccoli and strawberry jam from food stores along the road, produce which would be impossible to grow in the tropical parts of the Philippines.  It was my slice of America 8000 miles away from home in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Baguio served as a source of pride during the American colonial period.  It was known as one of the main tourist cities from 1898-1946.  In fact, many of the attractions of the American period still remain.  Baguio is home to a famous golf course and cowboy horseback riding grounds straight out of the rodeos in Texas.

Despite its (comparatively) recent history, I went to Baguio for something ancient, something prehistoric: the music of the Cordilleras people in the region.  These indigenous people have lived in the Philippines prior to the Spanish colonization and the Muslim and Chinese encounters even prior.  This trip to Baguio was my first official “field work.”

I spent my time in Baguio interviewing Cordilleras musician, pedagogue, and instrument maker, Beni Sokkong.  We discussed and played several Cordilleras instruments; my personal favorite was the nose flute.  The nose flute is a fun native instrument as its language is built on improvisation.  Rather than fixed sheet music, the instrumentalist requires only an improvisational mental vocabulary to play it.  Furthermore, it is also an instrument for leisure.  Many Cordilleras musicians will play it for mundane occasions or just relaxation.

What I found most thought provoking about this trip was Mr. Sokkong’s description of Cordilleras music as a link to understanding its people.  He discussed how their music achieves a high level of complexity through simplicity.  Cordilleras music is built on highly stratified, interlocking melodies.  Melodies create “clouds” of sound in order to make a metaphysical, sonic environment.  Cordilleras music exhibits this trait in just about any of their musical practices and for centuries has been a common trait in musical rituals from taking meals to talking to God.  It is through this that the Cordilleras eat, sleep, and breathe; it is their central musical identity but also an extension of their cosmological belief system.  Cordilleras music puts you in an environment and lets you walk in it.  The environmental music aspect of Cordilleras music is their modus operandi but also a hallmark of cultural identity.  It is their Kansas City BBQ sauce, their Maryland Crab Cakes, their New England Clam Chowder.  Cordilleras music is an aesthetic that transcends a people; it is a plane through which music is a gateway to the soul of man and his society.


“The Horror…the horror…” More on that later.

This past weekend I went on a day vacation with my Fulbright colleague, Camil, to Pagsanjan Falls, a waterfall tourist destination about 2 hours away from Manila that lies under a canyon and at the confluence of two rivers, the Balanac and the Bambungan Rivers.  Compared to other waterfalls like Niagara Falls, Pagsanjan Falls is only accessible via bangka, small paddle boats, so visitors not only get the viewing pleasures of this scenic trip but they also get to travel in the old school style (I use old school lightly referring to thousands of years ago).  Also unlike Niagara Falls, tourists are allowed to go directly under the brunt of the waterfall.  This was quite an experience and unfortunately I have no pictures of going under the waterfall for obvious reasons.  However, I was able to take several pictures of being in “Devil’s Cave,” the cave on the opposing side of the waterfall, and that too was quite an experience.

Although it was raining, I definitely enjoyed the trip in more ways than one.  The entire paddle up was more beautiful as advertised and offered views of rapids, canyons, smaller waterfalls, volcanic rocks, and all sorts of plant life.  For movie buffs like myself, Pagsanjan Falls is best known as the filming location for the Kurtz Compound sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.  The water and canyon isolate just about anything from the rest of any nearby towns so you really buy into the idea that this is a remote jungle environment.  It was weird seeing this beautiful, serene place for what it really is, as it seems so removed from the Pagsanjan Falls that audiences see in the film.  It made me wonder what horror ol’ Kurtz was speaking of, maybe he should’ve just walked out of his room and enjoyed the view.

Something that has been bugging me is how Coppola ended up in the Philippines.  After doing some research I found an interesting connection between the Philippines and the making of Apocalypse Now.

Roger Corman, the famed B-movie (but highly successful) filmmaker made several movies in the Philippines.  For those who aren’t familiar with Corman on the whole, he is probably best known for making extremely low budget films that found a large audience but also giving young filmmakers a chance by allowing them to work on production on a number of his movies including Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme.  Several of the filmmakers worked under his tutelage in the Philippines or were acquainted with it as a shooting location, including Francis Ford Coppola.  In fact, I discovered that one of Coppola’s associate producers was a Filipino who was a frequent collaborator with Corman’s productions in the Philippines, Eddie Romero.  I thought this was very special as Eddie Romero was a local legend in my father’s hometown of Dumaguete and worked tirelessly to put the Philippines in the spotlight through his collaboration with Corman.

After diving into many of these awesomely cheesy movies (with titles like The Hot Box and TNT Jackson) and reviews of Apocalypse Now, I was surprised to see that there is a correlation between the aesthetic of Apocalypse Now and the B-movies made by Corman and his associates in the Philippines.  Many of the filming techniques including set designs, actors, and shooting styles that Coppola used were previously used in Corman’s movies made in the Philippines on a low budget and with as much cooperation with the local Filipinos like Romero as possible, making this American classic, a movie uniquely influenced by its Filipino locale.

Film history lesson aside, Pagsanjan Falls was a transformative experience.  I found it as a step into the ancient and more recent past.  It’s a place to engross oneself in the beauty of nature but also to enter that swift boat into the madness of Col. Kurtz.ApocalypseNow 1620601_2468121342209_690396117_n150834_2468112461987_1211574567_n1560638_2468128622391_667567719_napocalypsenow_still_42 1656274_2468109141904_1309732583_n

Last Saturday, my Fulbright colleague, Zach, and I boarded the fast boat from Manila Bay to Corregidor 40 kilometers away giving us the opportunity to go see the famous Philippine-American fortress during World War II.  This trip was a very exhausting trip both physically and emotionally.

Corregidor is like a cemetery national park.  Unlike most battlefields that are dedicated to restoring sites to pristine condition, Corregidor is dedicated to preserving the destruction in these sites during the Defense of the Philippines in 1941.  The devastation from the bombardment is palpable.  You can really see how the campaign to oust the combined American-Filipino force took a toll on the buildings and the communities that were in place.  Corregidor used to have its own theater, recreation center, and golf course but today it remains a national park formed by ruins and memorials to the fallen.

The History major at Holy Cross taught me to look beyond history as the passage of events, so I ended up making my own in depth analysis of Corregidor particularly in the discipline of the history of memory (how we remember our history and how those narratives change over time).  It is clear that the park unapologetically portrays Allied forces as the just victors in the Pacific War.  The video on the fast boat to Corregidor made it clear that the Allied forces of the US and Filipino Army are the victors.  By 1945, the Japanese were undone, defeated, and ousted out of a position they maliciously tried to take.  Many monuments suggest that the sacrifices made by Filipino and American servicemen and women were done at the price of freedom and a better world.  And many of us have learned that this is the case through movies, TV, and books on the subject.

And yet, this idea of a righteous victory over the Japanese is not the overarching message that the island tour has to offer.  While it is suggested that the Japanese defeat made the world a better place, it also acknowledges that ample suffering that went around on both sides.  This idea hits home hard with the Malinta Tunnel tour.  Malinta Tunnel was an underground complex made by the American and Filipino army before the War that served as the headquarters for both Filipino-American combined forces and Japanese forces.  During the tour, visitors get a simulated experience of both defenders through a presentation of the continuous bombardment by the Japanese Navy and Army on American and Filipino defenses segued into a simulation of the Japanese mass suicide by grenades during the eventual return of Corregidor to American and Filipino forces.

This left me wondering just how complicated talking about the War is in a contemporary setting.  I’m standing on an island that is a grim reminder of a type of warfare we may never see in our lifetime, far removed from the reality of the events 70 years ago.  All total, the casualty listings at the end of the Philippine Defense Campaign were nearly 40,000 American men and women killed or captured with 100,000 Filipinos in the same figure.  Japanese casualties in the first Philippine Campaign totaled 22,000 and nearly 400,000 in the second.

To complicate things further, the island offers many sites that honor the Japanese soldiers who died in combat.  There are two shrines that overlook the West Philippine Sea, one Shinto, and the other Buddhist.  While looking at the shrines, I found a Japanese couple doing a Shinto prayer.

General MacArthur’s famous speech after the defeat in the Philippines had the phrase: “I shall return.”  It was a very penitent and personal statement at what had been such an unforgiving campaign.  Although that speech was made 70 years ago, I feel those words ring true today when you step foot on Corregidor.  You make a return to a time when warfare was asking so much of everyone, when it was acceptable for the military to ask men and women to step up to the plate and “make a sacrifice bunt.”

Overall, the trip felt more like a journey towards truth than a sight seeing tour.  And even as we approached the island of Corregidor, the skies were overcast, visibility was low, and the water was choppy.  It felt more like a travel of time and space rather than distance, like we were going to visit the town of Brigadoon.  I was not going just as a tourist or a sightseer; I was going to make amends with the past.  I felt like a shaman conjuring the spirits of his ancestors, trying to understand what happened on the island of Corregidor and how we live today because of the actions of the men and women before us.  It wasn’t just studying history; it was stepping inside it, looking beyond the murky clouds of the past and finding truer meaning in the present.1236936_2456271605973_262626784_n1471090_2456275406068_497533519_n 1493215_2456276006083_515979137_n 577354_2456271485970_509468261_n 1609692_2456268005883_1408366734_n 1560634_2456255005558_546988464_n 1613861_2456253285515_1070542527_n 1044345_2456243725276_377175516_n 1536424_2456239485170_200833167_n 1012009_2456229244914_1177857234_n

In the periphery of the Metro Manila area lies the smaller city of Las Piñas.  The city of Las Piñas is quite different.  Although it is listed as part of the contiguous Metro Manila region, it borders the neighboring province of Cavite and feels more like a part of the provinces rather than a part of the big city. Las Piñas provides much of the Philippines’ salt and has since the Spanish Era.  Walking into Las Piñas is quite like stepping into the old Manila, seeing what it must have been like for the viceroys and other Spanish heads that ruled the Philippines so many years ago.

The main tourist attraction is the Bamboo Organ in St. Joseph’s Church.  Built in the 19th century by parish priest, Diego Cera, the Bamboo Organ as indicated by its namesake is built from bamboo.  Bamboo like many places in Asia is a staple in building structures, cultivating food, and making musical instruments.  Bamboo for many Asian traditions also represents a metaphysical connection to the land informed by Southeast Asian spirituality.  The Bamboo Organ is exceptional because it is a western instrument.  It represents a fusion of western music with Asian ingenuity.  Organ scholars from all over the West love to perform and study the Bamboo Organ.

I got to play a bit on the demonstration organ and it has a distinct timbre (sound color).  It really is built as advertised.  If you know what bamboo sounds like, just imagine it pitched to the western tonal system, and the result is exactly what you think it would be.

I was in awe of the Bamboo Organ.  While many Filipino musics are built on a combination of western traditions melding with native resources and culture, the Bamboo Organ represents a higher transcendence of melding traditions.  The fact that an organ, a highly sophisticated western instrument and the primary instrument of one of the most important western composers of all time, J.S. Bach, can be made with native earth materials from the other side of the world, really struck a chord with me.  There are legitimate new musical experiences in the Philippines for everyone, not just ethnomusicology and composition researchers like myself and the Bamboo Organ is definitely one of them.  In seeing and hearing the Bamboo Organ I started envisioning a what-if scenario.

I wondered what would happen if Olivier Messiaen, an organist, as well as one of the greatest Catholic composers of the 20th century were to play this organ.  Messiaen was fond of incorporating many non-western musics into his work including South Asian and Southeast Asian traditions.  In fact one of his best-known works, the Turangalîla-Symphonie uses a configured ensemble of xylophones to imitate Indonesian gamelan.  What would happen if Messiaen were to hammer away at this organ in Las Piñas and step into the Filipino universe built on Southeast Asian spirituality mixed with Spanish Catholic tradition?  What would his reaction be to experiencing a combination of unlikely forces from polar ends of the earth? 1507046_2445095086567_445436222_n 1544379_2445094886562_1404797900_n 1526157_2445098166644_152900066_n

After Christmas I was able to go to Bacolod, the former home of my grandmother.  Bacolod in Negros Occidental is a small city in the northern part of the southern central island chain of Visayas.  This small city produces much of the Philippines’ sugar crop and the most famous of all Filipino dishes, Chicken Inasal.  Eaten Kinamut style (with hands and no utensils), chicken inasal is one of the most amazing culinary experiences I’ve experienced.  It was so delectable it beat a simultaneous feast of chicken parm night with ice cream and meatloaf at Kimball.


Sugar has been a major crop in Bacolod since 1837 when Yves Leopold Germain Gaston, a French émigré to the Philippines, started his own sugar plantations.  My grandmother’s family still has owned a sugar plantation since Spanish colonial times and I was in awe of these huge crops being dwarfed by the even more impressively large and active volcano, Canlaon.  I managed to taste a couple of bits of sugar cane and I must say it was quite different than what I expected.

Bacolod was an amazing experience because it was a trip to the Philippines’ past.   I saw the Gaston household, a two centuries old Spanish-era mansion and my grandmother’s family’s old farm, currently tended by Monroy, the foreman, who has been working on the farm since the 1950’s.  It was a venture to see the Philippines’ old and still beating agricultural heart that keeps the country strong.  A core part of Filipino music is the drone, an utterance of repeated sounds that formulate the backbone for the melody.  The drone is an endless fixture representing the core values of Filipinos to live true to one’s identity from now until the end of time.  It pulls Filipinos around tradition, spirituality, and ideals that have been held true for millennia.

In seeing the people of Bacolod, I found the substance that the drone is describing.  In seeing and experiencing the rural tradition, I found the facets of the drone existing in the people who have been performing their families’ duties for years and will continue to do so through technological advancement, natural disaster, and changing social infrastructure.  They do this willingly and with perseverance to continue their way of life, Bahala na (In God’s hands).1502543_2437578618660_2108858871_n 1499477_2437581138723_348515758_n 999914_2437571258476_1545337568_n 1533871_2437559858191_1266781318_n

Before Christmas, I got to spend time with family in my father’s old hometown, Dumaguete in Negros Oriental, in the southern central part of the Philippines.  It was a welcome departure from Manila life, which can often be quite hectic and overwhelming.  The city of Dumaguete boasts a relatively small population by comparison and is famed for its beaches, world-class diving spots, old Spanish churches, and good American food.  I had a fantastic time touring around seeing my father’s old home (the ancestral home) and my father’s alma mater, Siliman University.  Siliman is an interesting piece of Philippine history. The

Thomasites, American volunteer teachers and the predecssors to the Peace Corps volunteers, founded the university in 1901.  As such, Siliman boasts many traits similar to American universities.  It has been a destination for many American educators and missionaries. Some have lived their lives as administrators, teachers and retirees here. Likewise, it is distinguished by a high number of Fulbright grants from the Philippines to the United States.

The whole of the Visayas has changed dramatically since the time my father lived in Dumaguete.  With the influx of money from call centers, tourism, and OFWs (Overseas Foreign Workers) there are many new faces.  People from all over come to what was once a very small town.  In local tourist destinations, I saw visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, China, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the U.K., France, and Germany.  It has become a hotspot for tourists and venture capitalists.

As a result, Dumaguete is far more cosmopolitan in recent years. Large country clubs, golfing spots, dolphin watching, and diving spots beach resorts bring a lot of fun activities and opportunites for eco-tourism.  When thinking about the differences between the Dumaguete that my father remembers and the Dumaguete I experienced, I can’t help but think about one of my favorite Brad Paisley songs: “Welcome to the Future.” The song itself is a reflection of the changes between generations and people over time, the progression from one state to another.  What was once a small town is now a hopping tourist spot with big malls, fancy hotels, and fun restaurants.  Dumaguetanos have money in their pockets and places to spend it.  As a result, the Duamguete I know and love has a different face from the Duamguete my father knows.  And yet, amidst all this, the heart of Dumaguete, the world famous hospitality of its people and the dedication to life by the sea has remained constant.


“Music is the universal language of mankind.”  As much as I applaud the optimism that this quote implies due to its belief in the strength of music to improve the human condition, I think it is something we ought to re-evaluate.  Music, in the western context that the quote is actually implying, is not a universal language.  It cannot be further from being a universal language.

After studying both classical music and indigenous music of the Philippines, I have seen fundamental differences that altogether contradict western music.  For hundreds of years western music relied on a bipolar relationship between two pitches, the tonic and the dominant, or the first pitch in a scale and the fifth pitch in a scale.  For hundreds of years, musicians drew us in by expressing a tonic contrasting with a dominant relationship, and we were hooked.  This relationship lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century when a large number of advancements dismissed old notions of that tonic dominant relationship, also known as the tonal system.  Thus, the era in which we live now is referred to as the post-tonal era.  Although the old adages of tonic-dominant relations are strained slightly in the ears of the more contemporary musicians, the tonic dominant relationship remains a fundamental part of what makes western music.  This contrast between pitches lies at the heart of all western music.

Right off the bat, Filipino music breaks expectations of what a western ear has for music.  I have played and listened to various instruments that don’t use pitch or they use instruments that play pitches between pitches.  Free from Greco-Roman origins, there is no concept of tonic-dominant contrast in Filipino indigenous music and likewise many classical compositions.  In fact, many concepts that are present in western music: pitch, time, and especially the instruments, don’t flow in a Filipino music system.  The fundamental aspect of almost all Filipino music is the concept of a drone, creating an eternally permeating sound through the ages.  This system has been in place for roughly 4,000 years and by all accounts doesn’t seem to be stopping neither in Filipino indigenous nor in classical musics.

Fundamentally, we are looking at musics, plural, not music.  Filipino music certainly is not western music.  Comparing universality between Filipino music and western music is comparing universality between Mandarin and English, or Swahili and Flemish.  Due to the roots being fundamentally different, these are in fact different musics. We live in a world of musics not music.  While the musics of the world are used to similar ends or are open to comparison, we cannot afford to make the assumption that we all communicate through music in the same manner, nor do we always view music in the same way.

In fact, it is this notion of musics that makes the Philippines so unique.  Recently, I’ve discovered that even more exciting is the notion that the Philippines has many musics as a country on its own.  The music of the Northern Kalinga traditions in Ilocos Norte is different from the Southern Mindanaoan gong kulintang, and there are hundreds of musics in between.  Musically speaking, the Philippines is its own world, a macroverse of cultures, languages, ethnicities, faiths, and traditions.  In spite of this, we can see a commonality in culture between all of the people of the Philippines.  The land and the people create one nation united.

Relating my music to the core identities of the Philippines has been emotional in the past few weeks.  Typhoon Haiyan crippled the Philippines but the relief effort has been and continues to be gigantic and always growing.  I mentioned in a previous post the notion of Kababayan, but I think looking at the music has helped me to understand why the Filipino communities have been so fervent in their efforts to rebuild the destroyed sections of their country and help their neighbors.  There is a collective bond between each community in this country that I believe is transcended through the musics.  Each musical tradition is like a stain glass tapestry that contributes to the artistry and multicultural identity of the Philippines.  The love for the Philippines and its many peoples directly correlates to the love of the many individual musical traditions found all over.  It allows them to identify themselves as a Tagalog, a Visayan, a Mindanaoan, but always and forever they say “Ako ay Pilipino” (I am a Filipino).


This Thanksgiving was a day of firsts for me. It was the first time I spent Thanksgiving in another country but more importantly it was the first Thanksgiving I spent without my family. Instead, I went to a Thanksgiving dinner party for Filipino and foreign alumni of American schools. It was a fun occasion with a good friendly atmosphere. However, it seemed distant from many Thanksgiving traditions i.e. the food was meant to make you feel satisfied rather than so full to the point you almost pass out and it was a dinner with people I had never met prior. Nevertheless, it was a good time all around. It was a reminder that even though I’m thousands of miles away from America, the Philippines is not too distant culturally.

This Thanksgiving was also a reminder of how fortunate residents of Manila were that the typhoon missed the northern regions. Three weeks on, Typhoon Haiyan is still very much on the collective consciousness and nearly everyone to whom I spoke with is working to perform all necessary steps to rebuild this country. Whether it be providing goods or funds, spreading awareness, everyone wants to do their part. The effects of this storm are from over but the outreach by Filipinos and expatriates in the Philippines will not end anytime soon.


It’s been 3 days since the devastating storm that has now paralyzed most of the southern islands of the Philippines.  Although technically we felt the typhoon in the Metro Manila area it was tame by comparison.  Even though satellite images appear to cover the entire Philippine archipelago, the only significant weather I remember was sporadic rain and a few gusts of wind.  The past few days have been surreal considering the southeastern islands’ damage reports coming in are catastrophic.  It’s been hard acknowledging the damage in Samar, Tacloban, and Leyte knowing the distance from Manila to these regions is comparable to the drive from my house to Holy Cross.

I feel like not many people know about these islands and places in the news: Samar, Tacloban, and Leyte.  This island chain in the Visayas primarily speaks Waray, a Visayan (central and southern island) language.  While most Filipinos speak Tagalog and English, many who originally come from the provinces speak an alternate language.  In the southern islands, the two predominate languages are Cebuano and Illongo.  This region also was very famous for decisive World War II battles including the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which saw the US Navy sinking the Imperial Japanese Navy’s biggest battleship ever constructed.  This battle contributed to the legend of US Naval legends like William ‘Bull’ Halsey and even more so to Army General Douglas MacArthur who in an iconic photo stepped foot on Leyte fulfilling his promise to return to the Filipinos and Americans who had been overrun by the Japanese three years prior.  Thus, the region is still very much ingrained in the consciousness of many people.

Although I haven’t been to these areas, I know of them through second hand experience.  During my internship with the Embassy last summer I was tasked with escorting the US Pacific Fleet Band to their performance venues in Manila.  A week prior to their visit to Manila, they steamed into Samar and played a concert that was so pleasing to the 7,000 residents that the mayor of Samar declared them citizens for life and asked that they live out their days on the island.  After seeing some of the videos of these performances on YouTube, I was really inspired by their enthusiasm for music.

The devastation has been horrific, but I have seen so many Filipinos ready and eager to help.  Volunteers are making aid packages across the country in offices of the Department of Social Works and the volume of donations to the Red Cross and other organizations has been widespread.  The Filipinos embody this spirit of pitching in through ‘Kababayan,’ which literally translates to countryman, treating other Filipinos with love and kindness and trying to help them back on their feet.  This spirit of ‘Kababayan’ is mutually felt across the world through Filipino immigrants all pitching in to help out the typhoon stricken regions.

After seeing several natural disasters including one earthquake and four typhoons, I don’t know how to describe the spirit of the Filipino people through adversity.  The closest thing I could come up with is their spirit is like a yo-yo, a Filipino invention.  While natural forces work to push them down, they are resilient and stick together like glue in order to work against whatever tries to keep them down through a collective willingness to improve their quality of life.


The director of Ang Misyon has asked me to conduct the Taytay Philharmonic, a youth orchestra in the Manila suburb of Taytay, in an upcoming concert celebrating their initiation into the greater Ang Misyon system.  The El Sistema program in the Philippines mission plan is to make one main orchestra, the premiere group known as OFY (Orchestra of the Filipino Youth) and several affiliated satellites that act as a farm system to the main orchestra.  The satellite orchestras produce their top talent to send to the main orchestra where they will further develop their skills, but all orchestras will be performing constantly allowing these young musicians to be well seasoned for the future.  We have a good concert coming in November 10 and I will blog updates until then.

So far the first 2 rehearsals have been tough but strong.  Personally, this is the first time I’ve conducted outside in a tropical country, not complaining but acknowledging this is a challenge.  Above all, I try to emphasize good musicianship through flexibility and understanding.

I’m also trying to promote a thirst for music in these students.  I want them to be able to listen to recordings after recordings of different works, sometimes even the same works by different performers. Eventually, their musical taste buds will be as meticulous as a fine wine aficionado. I want them to keep gnawing at the big cheese of the musical repertoire.  When it comes to how to view practice, I preach the words a wise mentor once told me, “You don’t have to practice, you HAVE to practice.”1378745_2338039690249_159507573_n1379225_2338043050333_930723675_n

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Paul Fontelo '13

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