ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Remember that when rap first jumped off, many people did not even consider
rap a form of music. . . . But just as jazz prevailed and completely
altered the world conception of music, rap has prevailed
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
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Digital Technology & Telling Our Story
An Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam
By Rudolph Lewis
Rudy: In your essays Neo-Griot and a Neo-Griot Manifesto, you point out the vital connection of a cultural worker and the community and how that connection can be advanced by the use of digital technology. Could you restate how the use of the new digital tools has provided or can provide advantages to the cultural worker never imagined during the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975)?
Kalamu: Digital technology is to the 21st century, what sound recording (radio and records) was to the 20th century. The significance is that prior to the 20th century, the ability to transmit African-rooted cultures was severely limited because there was no way to mass produce and distribute sound. The main means of mass cultural transmission were all text-based, specifically the book and sheet music, neither of which reproduced sound.
African-rooted cultures all employ sound as both a language and as a force for social cohesion (see my short essay clapping on two and four). Once sound could be easily reproduced and mass distributed, at precisely that point, African-rooted cultures were unshackled. (Clearly our music was still exploited, however, there is a major difference between slavery and working for wages.)
Of course, we must also (and always) consider the social context. In the world arena, the reason that African-American music (blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and rap) became the predominant and most influential form of African-rooted musics is because African-American music was rooted in and transmitted by the economic and political might of the United States of America. There is no mystery. Our culture flew worldwide on the back of the American eagle.
We can extend our sound analogy to note that rap is to the 21st century what jazz was to the 20th century. Both are worldwide phenomena spread by global American dominance. In their periods of ascendancy, they both shaped not only the aesthetic of contemporary music but also shaped the very definition of what is music as well as shaped the production and the economics of music making.
Remember that when rap first jumped off, many people did not even consider rap a form of music. There was no harmony and very little melody in the then traditional sense of melody. Among music critics and in the mainstream media of the early 20th century there was a similar perception that jazz was not real music. But just as jazz prevailed and completely altered the world conception of music, rap has prevailed and initiated an aesthetic revolution in terms of what defines music.
Focusing on how much money pop artists can make, sometimes seemingly overnight, many people would say the economic revolution of rap is obvious, but the economic ramifications are far deeper and far broader than most people consider. Again, let us go back to the early years of recordings. The music industry was based on selling sheet music. Publishing companies were the record companies of their day. Then recordings hit the scene and, by the twenties, sheet music had become a niche market while recordings dominated the commercial music market.
Digital technology specifically the internet as a delivery system via downloading of music is to CDs (i.e. the current manifestation of the record) what records were to sheet music. Just like records demoted sheet music, digital downloads are demoting CDs. These far reaching changes have tremendous economic consequences. Although I can not predict the details of the future, we can easily see that major change is imminentsome would even argue that change is already here, hence the current battle waged by record companies against free downloading that the recording industry argues is killing music, when in truth it is not music that is suffering but rather the bottom line profits of the recording industry that is suffering, an industry notorious for its disdain of both musicians and music.
Nevertheless, the importance of the aesthetic and economic vectors notwithstanding, I believe that the production question is the most important of the three areas because it is the far reaching effect wrought by the changes in technical production that is driving both aesthetic and economic changes.
First of all, digital technology has put the production of recorded music into the hands of the creators of that music. This is a very important development that attacks the foundation of 20th century music production, which was based on the dual need for expensive equipment and for highly trained technicians. The equipment/technician dyad was the province ruled by the rich. Digital technology makes it possible for poor people in their bedrooms, dens, garages, and, in some cases, closets, to produce commercial products comparable in quality to what previously required a major recording studio manned by skilled technicians (who were almost invariably males).
It is not simply that artists can now produce their own music, but more importantly, a class, sub-culture, ethnic group, or whatever, can represent themselves and compete in the commercial arena. This means that the producers can be of the same class, culture, etc. as the artist. Rather than an argument for the Balkanizing of music into small, competing and mutually hostile units, I am saying that digital technology has enabled the expansion of music production. Now everyone can be a producer or an engineer, as well as be the artist. This injection of new blood into the production game inevitably has an aesthetic corollary, as producers come online who have radically different tastes, cultural backgrounds, and aesthetic/political goals and objectives.
Digital technology is affordable. What used to costs hundreds of thousands of dollars can now be accomplished with hardware and software whose total cost is less than five thousand dollars. Moreover, the technology can be used in environments conducive to or native to the artist rather than the artist being required to go to foreign territories to record their music. The portability of the production equipment is a major development because much of African-rooted music can only be created in its native environment completed by an appreciative and participating audience who often sings and dances as co-creators in the music making process. Location recording used to cost a ton of money and require all kinds of specialized equipment and technical proficiency, with digital technology there is a significant reduction in these considerations.
Digital technology is also accessible. Production processes that formerly required specialized training can now be mastered by anyone of moderate intelligence who is willing to take the time to literally play with the equipment. Many young engineers dont even read the manuals, indeed, a lot of software no longer includes a physical manual in book form, but instead has help menus built into the software or available online. This drastically changes the production process and, for the first time at the professional/commercial level, enables the same people who create to also produce.
Now, imagine everything I have said about sound, also applied to visual reproduction in terms of movies, which include images as well as sound. It is no accident that music videos developed at the same time as the ascendancy of rap. The conventions of rap videos influence, if not outright dominate, the production of all popular music videos.
Digital technology has the major advantage of enabling us to present images at the same time that we present sound, thus, we approach the holistic mode of African-rooted performance that traditionally included ritual specific content (i.e., meaning) presented through music, dance, song, storytelling and imagery (specifically personal adornment and masking). I maintain that although the African-rooted performance aesthetic was necessarily sublimated within the crucible of slavery, this performance aesthetic was not eliminated. Digital technology combined with political developments provide us the means to re-assert our traditional performance aesthetic.
When we were enslaved, African-centered visual aesthetics were expressly prohibited. Paradoxically, it was African-centered visual aesthetics that European artists used to modernize their art. The forces of colonialization brought both African art objects and African people themselves into the European capitals and into the consciousness of European artists, who in turn used these new ingredients to make crucial developmental leaps in their cultural production of visual art specifically, and performance art in general. In a similar fashion, I believe that digital technology makes it possible for African-centered artists to express a new consciousness and develop, or re-develop as it were, a performance aesthetic that brings together ritual content with aural and visual aesthetics. In short, we can make music, sing, dance, adorn ourselves and our environment, all of which become an integral aspects of the process of expressing ourselves.
Via its affordability and accessibility, digital technology gives us the means to more fully express ourselves, especially when compared to the muteness of text and the blindness of recordings. With digital technology visual reproduction, not just in terms of still images, but also in terms of gesture (the image in motion, i.e., dance) is returned as an integral aspect of aesthetic performance. These considerations have far reaching implications. I have only scratched the surface in this response to your opening question, but I hope that this discussion has philosophically opened some doorsdoors that in the new world context have heretofore been prison doors containing us and restricting our cultural production.
Rudy: We have had the print and the sound revolutions and we are living now in the digital age. But you believe there with be numerous stages in this revolution. What is it that you see on the horizon? Certain technologies, like the TV and the telephone, you believe, will soon wane in use. In effect, they are dead?
Kalamu: They are dead in one sense, but reborn in another sense because their functions are now merged into one object instead of existing in four or five distinct objects. In this way, technological developments influence but also reflect economic and political developments.
The forces of economic and political globalization are forces of concentration. Whereas social integration is necessarily a centrifugal force that moves individual away from small social units to become part of a larger social unit, there is a contrasting centripetal force that moves everything on the periphery closer to the individual. In symbolic terms the thing (i.e. the global economy) eats us, but in the process of the thing digesting what has been eaten, we change the thing.
Moreover, what was originally two distinct entities, the eater and the food, in the digestive process becomes one creolized entity. Perhaps, to be provocative, we might call this the mullatto-izing of cultural production. I could draw the analogy out further and suggest that we are not actually simply food, we are also viruses that will permanently alter (if not outright kill) the thing that consumes us.
Well, just as this process exists on a social level, this process also works on a material level. More and more often, rather than an object doing one thing, we will create objects which are multifaceted you might say objects that are multilingual or that are of mixed ancestry. Thus, the television, the newspaper, the telephone, and the game board (from playing cards to pinball machines, tic-tac-toe to video games) are now (or shortly will be) contained within one machine, which we know today as the personal computer (although the resulting machine will probably have another name). Again, there is nothing mysterious about this process, rather the merging of many into one is a reflection of a synergism of social, economic, political and technical forces, each of which has its own individual propensity toward concentration and amalgamation.
I know that this all sounds a bit far removed from cultural production, but it is my contention that no culture exists in a vacuum. If there are momentous changes happening in economics, politics or social organization, sooner or later those changes will manifest themselves in the realm of cultural production and also in the cultural product itself, i.e., within both the process and the product of culture.
I have not brought up the social force of urbanization but I think some of the implications of urbanization are obvious, especially if you consider that the dominant forms of 20th century African-American music have all been urban. Even the blues, which started as a rural music form, quickly morphed into an urban form and in that urban form gained its broadest popularity.
By the way, I am not arguing that the new urban form is either superior to or more desirable than the traditional rural, nor am I arguing that the concentrated is better than the de-centralized, rather I am simply recognizing the reality we face today. Moreover, at a sophisticated level, I believe that the advent of digital technology will make it possible for us to inhabit smaller social units, units that might be considered rural in form, even as we avail ourselves of the resources (both material and intellectual) that exist in the world. In other words, the broad reach of digital technology, just may be the thing that allows us to live physically isolated from the world. Digital technology can enable us to live in the country while remaining connected to the world.
Rudy: You point out rightly that one does not need a Ph.D. or a white face to make use of the new technologies. But, as you note, human problems or obstacles still remain. Even if we allow that the technology is within reach of our skills and our pocketbooks, the effective use of and maintaining these technologies in cultural work requires the cooperation and collaboration of others. How does one organize for ongoing cultural projects when extreme individualism and selfish interest are so prevalent?
Kalamu: Allow me to answer using a moral argument: evil is not omnipotent. I do not believe in dualism. I do not believe that some things are inherently evil and other things inherently good. I believe that there is good and bad in everything. That, indeed, the very concepts of good and bad are really a social judgment made by someone or some group exterior to whatever is being judged. Even to say, I did wrong or I did right, implies that there is some part of you that is outside of the you that acted a certain way. You implicitly cede to that outside you, the you commonly called ones conscience, the power to make judgments about the you that acts in the social and material world.
Your question is how does one organize, but your assumption is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to organize those who manifest extreme individualism and selfish interests, which is to say that what might be termed evil (i.e., extreme individualism and selfishness) is stronger than social forces for community.
I believe doing good is its own reward. Helping others, helps the helper as much, if not more so, than it does the person who is helped. I believe we are social creatures and to the degree that we make the world better and more beautiful, make our societies conducive to physical and mental health, to that same degree we all prosper together.
I understand that it is difficult, but I believe it has always been difficult. Can we seriously argue that today it is more difficult to do good than it was four hundred years ago during our period of enslavement?
Perhaps, there is a god above and a devil below, and they are in an eternal struggle for our souls. I certainly can not say for sure that such is not the case. But I can say, that is not my belief. I believe in every era, at every moment our challenge is to figure out how to make the best of the time we have, given whatever resources we have. One resource we all have, regardless of any external circumstances and conditions, is our imagination. We all have imagination and we all have our will to create beauty and an ability to help others.
As for how to organizethat is to say, to directly answer your questionI believe that those of us that believe in change must dedicate ourselves to being change agents. In order to be a change agent, one of the first requirements is that you understand that you, and not the society you struggle with and within, you must bear the cost of making change.
Whether the cost is material resources, or time, or individual effort, whatever, those of us who would make change must be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to produce that change. Actually, it is a simple question of whether you will do for others or whether you will be fixated on doing for the individual self.
That is a choice each of us makes, continually makessometimes we go with this, other times we go with that. One day it’s above, another day it’s below. On a third day its a mixture.
I believe that I have a more profound effect on my community by using whatever resources I have to help others than by using those same resources for self-aggrandizement, whether that be material aggrandizement or social aggrandizement.
Earlier this morning I received an email from a friend who is working on a website and had gone to the e-drum archives to research info for his website. He wrote to me and said that he found a wealth of information in the archives and that some day historians and the like would bless me for doing e-drum. Well, here is an example. I pay for e-drum out of my own pocket. I do not seek grants or advertisements or any other form of sponsorship. I could have chosen to buy a fancy car, clothes, jewelry, even buy the latest computer with the money and time I spend on e-drum. But had I bought those things would any historian remember me? Would that have helped my friend put his web site together?
I think many of us are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our social environment. We dont believe we can beat the devil. We are overcome by pessimism. But I remain cheerful and optimistic. Why? Precisely because my goal is not to control the world, but simply to make the world better and more beautiful than when I arrived. My goal is to do my little bit to make life better. That is a goal that I can achieve. Thats how I flow.
As for the organizing part, I specifically work in areas where I can have an effect on others. There is organizing and then there is organizing. I mean that gratuitous acts of creativity and kindness help organize the world into a better place, although such acts do not specifically organize humans into groups whose goals are social, political, or economic control.
More and more, I am suspect of the impulse toward social control in general, and economic and political control specifically. I am more interested now in the nature of social relationships. I evidence that interest in the work that I do and by engaging in activities that give to others. I learned this from the feminist critique of the Black power movement. I am forever thankful for that lessonits about relationships, and not about power.
Once you look at the world from that perspective, then organizing becomes less about putting structures together and more about maintaining relationships, less about acquiring and more about giving.
Rudy: Finances or capital to pay people for their work and services to a cultural project also remains a problem. For example, your e-drum project, a worthwhile and significant cultural activity, is a one-man activity for which you make personal sacrifice. Even in the digital revolution, dont we suffer problems similar to those of BAM, namely, how to sustain a movement (which depends on individual commitment and sacrifice) and how to establish continuity? Or does the new technologies lessen such burdens?
Kalamu: But of course we suffer problems with obtaining the resources necessary to do our work. However, digital technology does make it possible to do what was previously beyond our reach. You cite e-drum.
Back in the seventies we struggled to put together a press. In the eighties I started to do a newsletter. I was trying to find a way to hook writers up, to share ideas and information. That effort never got off the ground. The cost was too much; too much in terms of money, but also in terms of the time it took to do what was necessary to complete the project.
I remember receiving forms that I had passed out at one of the Howard conferences. I got a bunch back in the mail. But just the process of setting up the mailing list was a monster, even for me and I was computer literate.
Allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment. There is a big difference between computer technology in general and digital technology specifically. I have been into computers since the seventies when I learned how to typeset on an IBM computer-typesetter. That was a bear to learn and operate. Later in the early eighties I had a Kaypro computer that operated on a CPM system. Then came DOS, and a little later Windows. Now I work almost exclusively on Mac computers.
I remember in the late eighties when the internet first started up. I was looking forward to not having to drive to Baton Rouge to a printer to deliver layout boards because we could send the files electronically over the telephone line. I also used the computer to do accounting. From print production to doing payroll, from writing poetry and plays to maintaining mailing lists and organizing political campaigns, the computer was my friend. Yet it did not significantly alter the way I worked; it only either sped up certain processes or made them easier to accomplish.
Digital technology, on the other hand, created a whole new world. In addition to making me more efficient and making some tasks easier to complete, digital technology enabled me to engage in modes of production that I previously had not been able to get into, specifically movie making. Digital technology also made it possible for me to do things I had failed to achieve before. That newsletter idea I had is now e-drum.
I started e-drum in August of 1998, five years later we are still going strong; in fact, we are growing. E-drum is a daily commitment. I get over 300 emails a day. I spend a minimum of one hour a day online, and I average about two and a half to three hours a day online. But the bottom line is that I can do e-drum without requiring financial input from others. I can afford to buy the computers and the storage equipment, pay for the online services, and not put any major strain on my pocketbook.
E-drum would not be possible were it not for the internet, were it not for the development of digital technology. The computer alone was not enough, I still would have had the major cost of physical reproduction of the newsletter and the distribution costs of mailing the newsletter. With the internet, there is no cost above basic maintenance. No printer to pay, no postage to buy, no specialized equipment and supplies to buy beyond the initial investment in a computer, which is a general tool that I use to do other work in addition to maintaining e-drum.
Digital technology enabled both a quantitative and a qualitative change in what and how I do my work.
In money terms, what is paradoxical is that digital technology is much cheaper today than earlier forms of computer technology was in the eighties. As a result, I would argue that we dont suffer in the same way we did during the BAM or any other earlier era. The cost for cultural production is not only much less, the cost is within the reach of the average person in America. Plus, the product we produce with digital technology is comparable to the products of major corporations in terms of quality.
I remember one of my high school students asking how much my laptop cost. When I said $1300, they said thats a lot of money. I cant afford that. I pointed out to them that they spend far more than $1300 on clothes and that if they wanted to they could save up and get a computer within six or seven months. But the point is the will to engage in struggledoes one want to do this work?
The material cost of this work is within our grasp, the real question is do we have the ideological commitment and the will to engage in alternative and/or oppositional cultural production. For those of us who want to make change, digital technology enables us to do so without having to conform to or join the mainstream. We can afford to stay small and produce whatever we want to produce, and at the same time distribute our work to the world.
Rudy: Allowed that cultural workers have command of technology and organization, there is still the matter of attracting the attention of an audience. By analogy you spoke rightly of the use of technology by rap and hip hop artists and their national and international impact. Theirs is a commercial project with corporate promotion and the content of their work is rather shallow, geared heavily on pleasure rather than consciousness-raising. Can the cultural worker really reasonably hope for such success and such influence. There is thus still, it seems, an uphill battle for the cultural worker to get his products of quality and depth in this market and be consumed by the broad masses. Will the new technology give an edge here also?
Kalamu: Yes, digital technology enables us to compete if that is what we choose to do. Again, to go back to the jazz example, the dominant and dominating capitalist system is going to do whatever it can to co-op and commodify our cultural work. Those of us who want to be popular will gravitate toward the centralizing force of the mainstream, those of us who want to be alternative and/or oppositional will exist on the de-centralized periphery.
Products of quality and depth will never compete in popularity. Occasionally, a John Coltrane will produce a My Favorite Things, but the majority of Coltranes work will never go platinum. Yet who has had a more profound effect on music making, John Coltrane or Kenny G. (who has sold literally millions more units of product than has John Coltrane)? Or to put it another way, would you rather be John Coltrane or Kenny G?
I think attempting to be popular on a worldwide level is a mistake for the artist who wants to raise consciousness. The minute we move beyond our own means to produce and distribute our work, at that precise moment we begin surrendering a portion of our power to critically raise the consciousness of our audience.
Let me use the greatest American composer of the 20th century as an example. Duke Ellington recorded for major labels and recorded for minor labels. But even though he had the backing of the majors, he also personally paid for a large bulk of his recordings, some of which have yet to be released. He understood that to do the kind of work he wanted to do, he could not rely on the system to produce all of his recordings. Ellington also produced some of his own concerts at Carnegie Hall so that he could present his music the way he wanted to.
On a personal level, my dedication to paying the cost to be the boss is reinforced by New Orleans street culture. We have a century-old tradition of Social, Aid and Pleasure Clubs. They started out as benevolent societies, forms of life and medical insurance. Today most of these clubs are strictly Social and Pleasure clubs, but their organizing principles remain the same. The members pay dues and one of their main activities is an annual street parade, which is a free event for the community. There are also the Mardi Gras Indians who sport hand-made elaborate suits, some of which literally costs thousands of dollars. Nobody pays these folk to do this. There are no major grants and fellowships. People work day jobs to pay for this (or, a few engage in extra-legal and even illegal activities, but thats another story). The point is there is a real life example of cultural production that is paid for by the artists and freely given to the community. The culture of Black New Orleans has predisposed me to my point of view.
If we want to do significant cultural work; if we want to create art of power, depth and influence; if we want to raise the consciousness of our audience then we must be prepared to produce as well as create, even if we dont distribute at the time that we produce our work.
In the literary sphere, a major accomplishment such as Cane was initially produced in a run of about 500 copies and went out of print before becoming a major book in African-American literature. There Eyes Were Watching God was largely ignored. I could go on and on giving examples of works we consider classic today that were never popular during the time period when they were produced. Popularity is not a pre-requisite of importance.
Indeed, a work can start off in obscurity and achieve classic status without ever becoming popular. Conversely a work can be extremely popular today and forgotten about tomorrow. For example, Frank Yerby was one of the best-selling romantic novelists of his time period. Most writers under thirty have never heard of Frank Yerby, not to mention have ever read any of his work. Jean Toomer wrote one book that we remember, and during the rest of his life time did no major publishing. However, Cane is a classic that will stand as long as there are discussions and studies of African-American literature. I dont believe any of Frank Yerbys books will be studied in a comparable fashion.
Some of us have been seduced by the trappings of popularity and have come to believe that popularity is the way to achieve artistic reach and relevance. But there is another way. Remember when I opened this discussion talking about the three audiences: ancestors, peers and future progeny? Well, I would like to end by returning to that note. Rather than focus exclusively on our peers, rather than seek immediate popularity, why not focus on our ancestors and our future progeny? Why not consider what we can do to live up to the sacrifices that our ancestors made? What we can leave behind that will make our future progeny proud? If we satisfy those two audiences, then invariably we will contribute something of value to the audience of our peers whether they recognized our work or not, make our work popular or not.
The marketplace is not the only arena for reaching our people. In fact, the marketplace is not even the preferred arena. Reaching our people at the community level, at the level of day-to-day life, social ritual and the level of choice, that is where we can have a more thorough and more lasting impact.
The reach and impact of ChickenBones is a prime example of the use of digital technology to produce work that profoundly challenges and changes the cultural landscape. One way the impact of ChickenBones can be measured is in the ever increasing numbers of people who access the ChickenBones website. Even if you were giving ChickenBones away for free, you could not afford to print as many hardcopies of ChickenBones as the number of people who access ChickenBones online. Moreover, the sheer volume of work included in ChickenBones would be almost impossible for you to manage in hard copyjust the question of storage for the thousands and thousands of copies of the journal that would be necessary to print in order to meet demand, just storage along would be cost prohibitive.
Moreover, while we can not argue that ChickenBones is popular in the sense that The Source magazine or even Essence magazine is popular, is it not true that ChickenBones has had a profound impact on its ever growing audience? Is it not true that at your current growth rate, within a year you will have achieved a million hits, a million people checking out ChickenBones? You are the answer to your own question.
Digital technology is no panacea in and of itself. Digital technology does not mean the end of struggle. Digital technology is simply a toola tool that levels the field of competition. The real questions remain: what are we trying to do, whom are we trying to reach, what is our message and do we have the ideology and will to engage in protracted struggle?
A luta continua (the struggle continues). Stay strong/be bold.
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Kalamu ya Salaam is a prolific performance poet, dramatist, fiction writer and music critic. He is founder of Nommo Literary Society, a Black writers workshop; leader of the WordBand, a poetry performance ensemble; poetry editor for QBR Black Book Review and moderator of e-Drum, a listserv for Black writers and their supporters. He also performs with the Afro-Asian Arts Dialogue. email@example.com
posted Fall 2004
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By Russell Simmons
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 9 January 2012