Contributed to "When Steel Talks" by WINTHROP R. HOLDER



Winthrop R. Holder

"The news that Shivan (my brother) is beating pans is distressing."

V. S. Naipaul, Between Father And Son: Family Letters


In spite of continuous analysis, Naipaul's craft remains even more mysterious than our other enigma - the Steelband. This article extends debate on the Naipaulian paradox by reconsidering his writings against the background of the Steelband.  Narrowing the gap between the "Great Storyteller" and Pan helps us solve another piece of the puzzle.

By considering both entities as flip sides of the same coin we begin to remove the mask that distorts understanding.  As such, Naipaul's craft is partially revealed through the panist's practice "runs" and the pan tuner's artful hammer.  Both novelist and tuner, then, can be perceived as a dexterous surgeon, who must cut, burn, cause pain - even make seemingly discordant noises - in order to heal and initiate change and renewal.


Viewed within this frame we see two things clearer: First, why Naipaul's writing is heralded in the metropolis and condemned by many in the "developing world".  Secondly, we understand why as the pan continues to enliven and touch audiences its range eludes snobs.  We contend that Naipaul's craft revels, unwittingly or otherwise, in the role of the half-sober fool who delights in unmasking the "Third World's" veneer - the f(r)iction of progress -while exposing the "First World's" self-conceit and delusion of the "Third World's" true condition.  Satire in the service of vulgarity?


The panist and pan tuner, on the other hand, can be compared to the Silenus figure - someone who appears foolish, noisy, and ugly while being wise, serene, and admirable inside.  Riches in poverty?


"Empty house lots had been turned into steel band yards or open-air motor repair shops."

V. S. Naipaul, Guerrillas

"The steel band… originating from this underprivileged, poverty-stricken community,

 was the signal of hope for the unemployed, destitute and stigmatized population."

Ancil Anthony Neil, Voices From The Hills: Despers & Laventille


Walking or driving by Brooklyn's Classon Avenue on any summer afternoon, Naipaul and the deaf may only see plenty tires - evidence of a nearby tire shop - disguising the fortress-like entrance to the open-air setting that is 621.  And, the blind may even quicken his pace so as to get away from the "noise" breaking free from behind the bridge.

Just as "a stranger could drive through (Naipaul’s) Miguel Street and say 'Slum!' because he could see no more" so, too, many foreigners may easily dismiss the "yard" at 621 as just another lot of desolation and despair.  But, by continuously resisting the galloping urban blight, this enclosure may be concealing a mystery.  Still, few may take time to notice the banner, rising above the barbed wire fence, with a singular tenor pan providing the visual serenade heralding the dancing couple; the Stars and Stripes, and the Tricolor - the red, white and black flag.

Nighttime is a different story.  By around seven, cars and people arrive: From Washington D.C., Tunapuna, Crown Heights, Cherry Gardens, Tokyo, Gouyave, Miami, Kumasi, Laventille, Copenhagen, Grenville, Falmouth, Barrackpore, Blackrock, Toronto, and even from as far away as Howard Beach, Colon, Trenchtown, Rio De Janeiro, Westmoorings, Streatham Hill, New Orleans and Bensonhurst.  Yet, inspire of the naysayers' vision of gloom and doom engulfing the inner city, what is it that unites and brings this civilian throng to 621? Is Pan the great equalizer?

Pan aficionados may find succor in Sparrow's verse, "The Attempt Is Good As The Act" for it's this belief that entices visitors to the pan yard - night after night - to witness, in the company of friends, the unfolding and emergence of the "tune."  True, the lime is good, but can that be the defining attraction?

Sometimes not even a single verse is completed after a whole night at many a pan yard.  Yet, the civilian is not only contended, but returns again and again.  For, to simply hear the finished product at Panorama or to view the results of the contest is to cheat oneself from experiencing the creativity that fires the progression of every classic arrangement.

Similarly, despite Naipaul's partial revelations, in The Enigma Of Arrival, of "the writer's journey" and his "ways of seeing" as an act of self-discovery, too much of the essence of his craft remains concealed.  Not even paradoxes of disorder in his work and further discoveries in Finding The Center coupled with the outpouring from many a critical pen have been sufficient to narrow the gap of understanding between Naipaul, his critics, and his seemingly dismissive stance towards "the Third World's Third World" - the wellspring of his creativity.

Indeed, just as the steel band creates great "noise" and even pain in order to produce beautiful music, so too Naipaul's craft is best understood as a pained reaction to the paradox that is the "Third World."  Although he maintains a distance from the Carnival Trinity - Pan, Calypso and Mas - it may well be the very tradition that informs and illuminates his craft.

Consequently, all of the "contrived" hurt when misreading Naipaul stems neither from a conscious rejection of his roots nor from a total acceptance of the ways of the colonial.  Rather, we descry too many slights and attacks on our very being - our ways of seeing and doing - because of our partial grasp of Naipaul's unwitting utilization of shock therapy flowing from his writing within a counter-intuitive frame to move people to transcend their condition.  Naipaul's pen then, may be best compared to the surgeon's scalpel and the pan tuner's hammer, both ostensibly destructive but therapeutically vital: the former for healing and the latter to create a path for beautiful music.  If fire is the pan tuner's temporizing agent, then comedy is Naipaul's anesthesia of choice.

Moreover, though Edward Brathwaite, the renowned Caribbean man of letters, viewed Naipaul's early fiction as "watering the waste with irony", his parodying of society - and in his later works the very vehicle of the parody, his texts - may also have been animated by an intent, not unlike Rabelais, "to destroy the official picture of events by not implicitly believing what his time 'said and imagined about itself'."  The panist too dances to his own tune especially when challenging the early attempts to stigmatize and even marginalize the movement and its spring.  If the panist and pan tuner move the public to re-imagine sound through the crucible of steel, then Naipaul’s text forces us to reconsider social phenomenon through the critical lens of dialogue and discovery.

 No wonder then that in “A Way In The World” - toying with his partially myopic critics - Naipaul comes closest to revealing the essence of his craft with the telling observation, "The books, light as they were, were subversive."  He may, indeed, be drawing upon the culture of carnival by consciously or otherwise using it in his work as "a topos, or recurring or organizing image" to engage his audience to transcend and transform - in his words - "a slightly flawed modernity."  Too many Naipaulian critics and supporters uncritically embrace his "Partial Truths", either as whole lies or as vital truths, while overlooking one frame and implied intent of his work: Namely not only to facilitate self-discovery while pointing the “soul” in the right direction but also by requiring courage in his audience to continually investigate our lot, and, if need be, to expunge illusions through the device of satire, paradox, picong, or Socratic irony.

Still, professor Gordon Rohlehr's "Ironic Approach" calls attention to Naipaul's acceptance of “anarchy and absurdity as the norms of his society" although the great storyteller may be merely employing the "joke" against the "official pieties" of Orthodoxy.  In short, Naipaul contests the dogmas of our time and embraces the courage to laugh while painting a picture even as corrosive as he sees - or imagines - it.  Chalkdust, the venerated social chronicler, may have said it best: "You Got To Learn To Laugh"!

Like the calypsonian, Naipaul's laughter cuts both ways, oftentimes bearing strange fruits.  Commenting on a reading of "In A Free State" he says, "I had (the audience) rolling in the aisle ...though later on they were a little shocked to discover they were laughing at something people shouldn't really be laughing at.  It was too late for them to regret their laughter."  Yet, in spite of the trenchant and acerbic critiques of his mode of "achieving the particular truth (he) had in mind", the Great Storyteller is as unapologetic as the Calypsonian or the Panist who hoists the banner of resistance thereby challenging their respective audiences to discover the true center.  As such, this trio, rather than serving as a release valve for pent up social frustrations, most often enlivens and enrages the community while nurturing the potential for self-actualization.


Back at the pan yard - the den of purposefulness - by eight o'clock, a metamorphosis takes place and 621 is transformed into a musical theatre showcasing the wizardry of the panist.  Crime, the handmaiden of urban blight, is all but non-existent in this community that surrounds and invigorates the pan.  (Let them talk their ghetto shit talk!)

The intermittent tapping of the captain's stick - signaling a section, or the entire band, to repeat the same phrases sometimes as many as five or more times - highlights and captures the discipline, total immersion, and submission of individual and competing egos into a collective oneness - All animated by a desire to "get it (the tune) right".  If Naipaul had ventured into the 'hood and witness this alluringly surreal pan scene he may have recanted and no longer dismiss "the steel bands as do(ing) the booming and the banging (creating) a sound I detested.” And, instead of confining the steel band to the company of "dogs in a thousand.., snarled barking relays, rising and falling", Naipaul may begin reflecting on his very own "booming and banging" with his Pen which, on a superficial level, also emotes detest from many a reader.  Such ruminations may move Naipaul to envision Pan with its rising and falling crescendos, not only as a vibrant member in the musical family but as a creative and inspirational vehicle for shaping and uplifting community not unlike his writing which tugs at the conscience and our sensibilities to reshape vision and refashion futures.

To be sure, witnessing an evolving pan yard panorama is central to an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the spirit and wonders of steel band music.  But to the blind and tone deaf, the resulting music played at the Panorama Competition may only be half as captivating as the process that spawns every stellar performance.  It was this intriguing village that I stumbled upon one week before Brooklyn's Carnival (which climaxed on Monday September 7, 1998) and was captivated not merely by the formal practice but - like Naipaul's "The Ceremony Of Farewell" - by "the things around the occasion."

The setting, or ambience, for this musical interlude is riveting.  As if to re-create "Pan In D Hollows", the panists perform on a submerged platform with the audience, separated from the players by greenery - row after row of lush tropical palm trees - looking down on the orchestra.  And, on the adjoining balcony, overlooking the spectacle, sit the elders of the band and it's the space where the band committee meets to gauge and discuss - even during practice sessions - the progress of the evolving Panorama tune.

The perceptive pan enthusiast can't help but concede that 621 Classon Ave. is no mere "steel band yard" but a pan theater of epic dimensions.  Indeed, this stage is testimony to the panist's desire to reaffirm his personhood in an even more hostile setting from which he migrated.  The collective energies expended by Despers U. S. A. both on getting the tune right and up keeping the free theatre underscores Earl Lovelace's contention that "when a people's humanity is in question, the affirmation of their personhood takes priority (and) artists (especially).-- preoccupy themselves with the aesthetic."

This absorption with aesthetics finds expression in the meeting of the Flags and the Pan on Despers USA's banner above and beyond the theatre's entrance.  The effect is one of playful engagement - gaiety and harmony.  On the inside panel, however, the wide gulf separating the stars and stripes from the Trinidad and Tobago flag, is mediated by the caption "By Any Means Necessary" flowing from the image of a towering and heroic figure.  This energy is in stark contrast to the silent frame of the young and hauntingly majestic Eric Williams, an image, apparently from his earlier teaching days at Howard University.

In a sense, this telling epigraph may well have served as the rallying cry in Trinidad of the early 1940s as the working class broke free, from the shackles which suppressed their musical inclinations and collective thoughts, to express their creative aspirations and energies through a new musical phenomenon - the PAN, a talking drum that reconfigures and celebrates the calypso by recontextualizing it.  Today, Malcolm X's injunction is even more at home on the banner of Despers U.S.A. signifying the struggles of the steel band in the Americas to re-create and revitalize itself while etching another notch in pan's ascent.


While practicing a "run" Clement Franklyn, Despers U.S.A.'s captain, noticed that two of the younger members (no more than eleven years old) of the band didn't quite get the proper phrasing.  The leader stopped the band and, with all the flair of a symphonic conductor, instructed the casts, "It should sound Like this, (scatting) 'bram/bram/pram/pram'; short rolls, followed by long rolls... Don't relax on the phrases."  After about four takes the youngsters were able to recreate, on the pan, their mentor's scatting thereby successfully completing "the run".  Without any prompting the entire band broke out in spontaneous applause providing further motivation for these virtuosos-in-formation.  A Naipaulian ritual? What a lesson! Discipline, tolerance, persistence, humility, and the final productive act of successfully completing the score.  Rites of passage?

The Pan theatre - an apparatus of order in a volatile surrounding - is a vehicle for transmitting culture across space and time.  This mode of handing down tradition is a poignant indication that Despers U.S.A. is not merely engaged in carrying forward the Pan but is constantly re-creating, refining and transmitting, what C L.R. James calls attention to in “Spheres Of Existence” as, a sense of moral responsibility to the community - the atmosphere in which (the elders) grew up".

Extending the creative atmosphere beyond the crucible of steel ensures that our "Peace Instrument", the PAN, this musical wonder of the twentieth century - created, from and within the cradle of suffering in Trinidad, during World War II, - would continuously sail forward on a vessel of dedication, spirituality and love, all shaped by defiance.  If, as Black Stalin claims that the defining frame of Calypso is that of "resistance English", then, its complement, the Pan, in its essence, creates resistance music as witnessed by its breakaway from, and refashioning of, the western motif.

The stunningly theatrical moment - encapsulated by generational convergence - not always recorded, led me to request an interview in order to better understand the nuance pathos of the art.  Later, during our conversation the captain, amazed at my wonderment, explained the practice: "I was simply putting the youth - one my own son and the son of another committee member - on the spot to prevent them from 'joking around' in a serious practice."  What a theatrical moment! But, are we ready to engage Derek Walcott’s "What The Twilight Says" overture and "transform the theatrical into theatre"?

Despers U.S.A. has been "burnt" many a time by interviews and tapes.  Understandably, there was a lot of resistance to "more talk."  Clement insisted that "taping is out" and that I should be at the open-air theatre at a certain time the following day.  As I pondered the interview I began considering and discarding possible questions.  After a few hours of serious thought my list of questions was reduced to six hundred and twenty-one.

Among the more critical questions on the list were: Is there any truth to the claim that, yes pan was invented in Trinidad but the mallets were created in Grenada? Recalling Lovelace's pan-playing description in “The Dragon Can't Dance” I had to ask: What is the best way to position the "rubber-tipped sticks to tease, stroke and gently caress the pan" 'til music comes?

More: I also wanted to ask: Why should people and communities put up with "all that noise" from pan? Since there are so many steel bands throughout the world, why isn't it more difficult to start and sustain one? From whence comes the pianist? What is his/her story? Dreams? What pain or pleasure does s/he bear to sustain and realize the dream? Armed with my ever-evolving list I entered 621 Classon Avenue.


Walking into the "pan yard" I was greeted by Clement - plate of food in hand - who upbraided me, "You are an hour and a half late man.  I don't have any time for you now! See if Denzil will talk to you."  To the panist, especially around "Panorama Time", time and timing is everything.  Rather, it's as if "carnival becomes a time outside time."  Everything is suspended: rules, relationships, even grammar.  Calypso, the language of the Carnival and Pan the pulse of the streets bear this out.  Confronted by the captain’s professionalism, I was forced to unlearn Kitchener's refrain - my anthem of sorts - "Any Time Is Trinidad Time."  This tense beginning was eased by the intervention of Denzil Botus, one of band's arrangers, resulting in the captain's renewed invitation for me to join in the feast.

Tension, then, was the defining frame of my visit: Facial expressions of joy concealing tense muscles of the twenty-odd warriors at the "pan yard", five o'clock that Saturday afternoon, as they went about their mission of conquering yet another Panorama title; The intense and constant thud of the tuner's hammer striving to capture the right groove for every note; The scintillating runs -punctuated by words of advice - of the five or so budding panists hard at work, refining their craft, way ahead of the "normal" practice time; And, the perspirations of joy on the faces of those in the in/tense heat of the kitchen preparing the communal meal.  In a word, dedication.

Perhaps, it's scenes like these that may have fired Calypsonian David Rudder's version of Pan as one of intense "Dedication... onward to a new perfection".  This pan yard entanglement, deceptively disjointed, further conceals and disguises the great organization skill necessary for the sustenance and repeated renewal of every steel band.  In many respects, then, the (in)tense heat of the welder's torch - a baton of sorts constantly aflame creating pan-stands - symbolizes and illuminates the vision of the panists’ trajectory of continuously blazing a new trail while "pitching tent" wherever our cultural ambassadors find themselves.


As I was about to launch into questions I found myself on the defensive trying to ward off the pointed and poignant questions of my interviewee.  A screening process of sorts I wondered.  Suddenly, I realized that with little forewarning I had become the subject!

Although Clement, Despers U.S.A. leader, recognizes the "character" of the appeal of Brooklyn's Carnival’s he nevertheless wanted to know why the media isn't interested in the story and survival of the pan and its complements within and beyond the culture of carnival.  Raising the issue of sincerity and sensitivity of coverage he wondered why when "Despers U.S.A." was even more of a struggling no-name steel band, like many a band at present, "reporters" never came around.  He questioned me about the disturbing nature of the media's coverage, which is more interested in what it wants to print, rather than what the panist says or what the people want to hear.  More!

My enigmatic interrogator wanted to know why the media is so hard on, and dismissive of an institution that has little yet gives so much, and in which ordinary people make extraordinary sacrifices.  He wondered if I could explain why the panist who contributes much receives so very little in return.  I couldn't even explain why the voice of the panist is only barely heard even when s/he is "interviewed".

Finally, (to my relief) he wanted to know if anyone other than a panist could tell the real story of pan's encounter with America? Can you? Further/more, he wondered if the temporary "fascination" with Despers was simply because it was - what some view as - "on top", having won the last five Panoramas.  (At the 1998 Panorama, Despers U.S.A. made it six in a row!).

His line of questioning led me to reflect on the parallel dilemma of the inner-city youth who constantly criticize the mainstream media for its tendency to portray mainly negative images of Blacks and only highlight one or two positives during "February's Black History Month."  Clement's and the youth's concerns underline Black Stalin's notion that collectively, calypso, pan, and culture is more than "a three minute thing!"

Further reflection led to the realization that Clement's concern went beyond a fleeting interest in Despers USA’s triumphs and pains.  In effect, he was calling for a concerted effort, especially by the "progressive" media, to publicize not only the "struggles and triumphs of the pan man" but to sing the praises of "our" countless unsung heroes who keep our communities together, while operating in the shadows.

In reality, Clement's was a clarion call signifying to us the need to begin the process of telling, in our distinctive language, our own stories so that we may enhance, preserve and enlarge our collective view of the whole: In short, engaging and recording indigenous knowledge – a neglected aspect of our real History.  Naipaul's "Mimic Men" says it best: "(T)he recording of a life becomes an extension of that life.” Little wonder that when it was my turn to "interrogate" the captain, I realized the irrelevance of my own question list.  Discarding it to the dustbin of history I began absorbing, the voices and language of the panist, in the shadows.




The captain ranged far and wide: from the scientific management of the steel band to the problem of the competitive spirit.  He readily asserts that at this time Despers feels that there should be "an organization formed by the leaders -Tony (Pan Rebels), Clyde (Moods), Curly (Silhouettes) ...and the others - people who have been in the business for a while to discuss issues affecting the pan."  He also wonders if membership in the American music union may not be a viable option.  Underlying the need for better understanding among bands, he contends that although the Panorama should of necessity be competitive, "togetherness and unity within the different steel band communities break down when everything - even a blockorama - becomes a competition!"

He continues, "Still, I respect all the bands.  All sound good."  Breaking free of the Overcrowded Barracoons in which Naipaul writes "Something of the carnival lunacy touches people (who he casts) as futile on the other side of the real world", Clement articulates an alternative vision for “the upliftment of the steel band” and its communities.  Though his focus is on his orchestra, he suggests that there should be a lively sense of camaraderie among bands if indeed, pan as an instrument and orchestra is to "rise up and live."

Exorcising the myth of Despers U.S.A.'s clannishness Clement, in his quiet yet straightforward manner, explains, "Sometimes Panorama brings a kinda war between pan men."  Embracing Selwyn Cudjoe's critique of Naipaul's fixation on explaining “social activity of people within the context of 'bad-Johnism' and 'robber-talk'", Clement adds, "although we stick together as a family, we not against anyone."  Pausing for thinking space and the effect of precise word choice while advising one of the steady streams of panists, who enter the fully insulated room where the stage-side practices during the winter, he completes his thought without missing a note, "We need to come together.  Truly!" And, with that said, he issues a call for pan leaders to plan and strategize for the "Pan Uprisings" early in the millennium.

Although the calypsonian has wondered "Wey I Band" and pondered "Pan In Danger" rising from the seemingly inhibitive clutches of "Panorama", which Les Slater, a veteran pannist, views as "a destructive rather than a constructive drive", Clement sees competition in the American sphere in a different light.  He notes, "It's the steel bandsmen themselves who are holding themselves back with too much belief in territory."  Indeed, speaking to the territorial imperative while politicizing his bad-Johns in "Guerrillas" Naipaul extends the captain’s notion of the pitfalls of “turf” with the telling assertion: "Everybody wants to fight his own little war.  Everybody is a Leader."

Still, in spite of the rancor that belies the positives of competition, Clement problematizes the Panorama concept: "We win Panorama, but what do we get for it? $7,000!" Breaking off again to attend to the concerns of two youthful members of his troupe, he picks up exactly where he left off and adds, "Our rent and expenses alone is $8,000!" He wonders, “Where’s the victory?" and asserts: “The $8,000 doesn't include the cost of preparing the band for competition".  Were Naipaul and those dismissive of Pan able to experience the timbre of the pan theatre while pondering the logic of the band's calculus, these skeptics may reconsider their jaundiced view of steel bands and panists as mere visionless, recalcitrant squatters on the fringes of society and begin seeing them as the embodiment of ingenuity and independence, two vital dispositions, if we are to leave our imprints on the world.

How then do the panist launch and sustain a band? Rather, why would anyone engage in such a venture demanding enormous time yet providing little physical and tangible or material reward? Clement's terse response is even more problematic: "That's the problem with competition, and culture."  Within that space he explains the religiosity of pan and of the band's own prayer, which adorns and exalts their open-air theatre.  Indeed, one may view David Rudder's carnival sanctifier, "High Has'' within the same frame as "Despers USA.'s Prayer" with which the band begins each practice.

Providing insight into the staying power of the group Clement mentions "the numerous gigs of the stage side" which is used to refurbish and sustain the band.  Is his response an enigmatic one giving rise to more questions than solace? Perhaps the even more profound paradox is that commitment to the steel band collective and the spirituality in which pan is encased, transcends competition.  In other words, though seemingly the steel band operates both within the spirit and sphere of rivalry, its survival demonstrates the very antithesis - negation if you will - of the capitalist spirit.  Possibilities for social reconceptualization and transformation?


Approvingly, Clement points to his two older brothers, themselves participants in the early steel band movement, as influences on his early entry into the world of pan where he has found and is quietly making his mark behind the literal, if not figurative, bridge of 621.  Profiling an early "bad-John" pan man in "Miguel Street" Naipaul notes, "and when you saw him beating a pan, you felt, to judge by his earnestness, that he was doing some sacred act.” This fervent passion and spirituality, so pervasive while growing up in Trinidad within the Desperadoes Family Behind The Bridge, has instilled in Clement and the community of Despers USA, the sense of moral responsibility to refine and transmit that sensibility to today's budding standard bearers of pan's ascent.

Adding his voice to explain the continuity and survival of the tradition of pan in New York, Denzil Botus, the indomitable arranger, notes, "Clement is the third generation of (band) leaders."  He further explains, "Leadership was passed down gradually; over time."  To which Clement adds, "And we have a committee which helps with the band."

The arranger is profuse in his praise of the younger Clement, considering him "to be one of the outstanding tuners - one of the few who learned to tune up here (in America)."  This is a poignant instance of cultural retentions and extensions beyond the crucible of steel and even outside Naipaul's fiction.

In 1950 when the bright seventeen-year-old Naipaul left Trinidad he may not have been touched by the emerging steel band movement, which was waging a fierce battle for social tolerance if not acceptability.  Why else would he have been so distressed, in 1951, by news of his six-year-old brother "beating pans"? Perhaps, such angst may have arisen from concern about "losing his Indianness" although his brother, like many others his age, may have been merely mimicking a new cultural form.  "Writing," the Great Storyteller tells us, is "a stage in the process of finding out."  Even with the passage of time and the antics of his "Mimic Men", Naipaul still has not fully found out that pan is an original, no mere "gimmickry" or mimicry!

Viewing the surrounding hills of pan's birthplace thirty-something-odd years after his departure, the bespectacled, mature and somewhat jaded Naipaul reveals in The Enigma Of Arrival that "immigrants ...quarantined and festering together...had altered our landscape, our population, our mood."  But, wouldn't any 1950s Classon Avenue resident's reflections on yesterday's changed landscape overshadow Naipaul's condescending discovery? Namely, that the steel band or pan has transformed not only Brooklyn's landscape and population but also, more importantly, the mood and sensibilities of America's pulse.  The enigma of continuities and dis/continuities?

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Photo by Basement Recordings - 2002


















































Photo by Basement Recordings - 2002

















































































































Photo by Basement Recordings - 2002





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