Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reggae in PP

Tippa Irie in Phnom Penh
Tippa Irie rolled back the years at Slur Bar on Friday night to bring his own brand of fast-talking reggae-raggamuffin style to Phnom Penh - the biggest name in British and world reggae to appear here. Hats off to Slur Bar and the organisers for getting such a heavyweight on stage in the capital and hope its the start of many. He belted out some of his best numbers, including Hello Darling, and was supported by local reggaesters (new word) Dub Addiction. A great night.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Steel Pulse - Chapter 2

An early press photo from Island Records: LtoR: David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, Michael Riley, Steve Nisbett, Phonso Martin, Ronnie McQueen, Basil Gabbidon.
It's time for the second chapter of my Steel Pulse story.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 2: Single Success
In March 1976 and closer to home, Steel Pulse entered and won a prestigious talent competition at the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth promoted by record shop owner and entrepreneur Cecil Morris, who ran Rising Star Records and managed top reggae band Matumbi. Jamaican-born, Morris had a penchant for discovering and nurturing local talent and known as the 'Music Master' he later went onto play a leading role in founding local pirate radio stations, Radio Star and PCRL. For the groups' talent contest, bands playing all sorts of music took part over a six-week period before a semi-final and final competition in which Steel Pulse were adjudged the winners by a panel that included members of Matumbi and the JALN Band. Amongst their winning songs were Handsworth Revolution and Nyah Luv, tunes written by David and which beat off the rest of the competition for the prize that included a sum of money and free time in a recording studio. Morris recalls, "it was no competition, I'd never seen anything like it, something big was taking place." The competition's chief judge was Dennis 'Blackbeard' Bovell, the man behind the band Matumbi and a leading light in black music circles in Britain at that time. He remembers, "there seemed dozens of them, they were quite a big band and then they started playing this song about Handsworth. Of course, local boys singing about a local place and how they're going to revolutionise it, suddenly the crowd just erupted." With his encouragement, boosted by the cash windfall and feeling confident with all the hard work they'd put into perfecting their musical style, they went into the Holick & Taylor studios in Grosvenor Road, Handsworth to record Handsworth Revolution though the track was never released as a single. Instead the band decided to record their first single, the moody Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku at the Bristol Street studios in the city centre. Written by Ronnie and with Selwyn singing the main vocals, 1,000 copies of the story of three African slaves were pressed and distributed by a small reggae label in London called Concrete Jungle, a subsidiary of Dip Records. It was intended as a statement of the Steel Pulse sound, it received an excellent review in Black Echoes and played in clubs, at sound system sessions and on pirate radio stations, it took the band onto a new level of their development. Not one to miss an opportunity, Bovell went onto produce tracks with both Thelma May and Tabby Cat Kelly, the winners of the solo singing competitions, the latter collaboration producing the popular single, Don't Call Us Immigrants.

The success of their public appearances inspired Steel Pulse to expand their horizons. "The money from our gigs went back into the pot, back into the band, to pay for more equipment and travel," recalls Basil. Their live performances began to spread far wider than the immediate locality of Birmingham. Michael Riley remembers, "we were playing pubs and clubs doing stuff like soul and watered down reggae to over 30's cabaret-type audiences. You had to do that type of stuff just to be able to play." Playing to mostly black audiences up and down the country, they were regularly seen in venues such as working men's clubs in Wolverhampton and Wednesbury and the more upmarket Bamboo club in Bristol, the Venn Street Social club in Huddersfield, various clubs in and around London and the International clubs in Leeds and Manchester. They always took a loyal following to these gigs and Colin fondly remembers, "seeing a long line of car headlights following us to our gigs along the then-empty motorways. Petrol was cheap and we had a lot of followers." After initially using their father's mini van to transport the band's equipment, Lee Allen purchased a large green Bedford transit van which David's cousin, Keith Ebanks, would drive around the country. As with all fledgling bands on the road they broke down a few times and had to miss the odd gig, but a handful of appearances they did make, across the Midlands, was as the backing band for popular Jamaican singer Ken Boothe, who'd had a number one chart hit two years before with Everything I Own.

By November 1976 Colin Gabbidon had reached a defining point in his music career. Along with Basil and David, he'd been there at the creation of something special and had played a significant part in the band's early success. However, amongst the band members there was some discord with Colin's style of drumming that meant rather than allow the disharmony to affect the band, Colin agreed to leave. It was a hard decision for him to take as he'd been proud of what they'd achieved so far and like the others he wanted to see how far it could go. However, as he recalls, "for things to move on, it's best for there to be harmony, so if other people are uncomfortable and you're not comfortable, it's best to split and to go your own separate way." And that's what happened. Colin said his goodbyes but remained their staunchest supporter. Replacing Colin in the band for a few months at the start of 1977 was another former Handsworth Wood pupil, Donovan Shaw. In May that year, Pulse played to one of the biggest all-black crowds ever gathered in Britain during the African Liberation Day protest and music event in Handsworth Park. Celebrated photographer Vanley Burke captured the day for posterity.

Towards the end of 1976 the band were introduced to Pete King through the Shoop Shoop disco he ran with Mike Horseman at the Golden Eagle pub in Hill Street. A fellow Brummie, Pete had run discos since he was thirteen and had been brought up on a diet of bluebeat, rocksteady and hardcore dub. He went to see the band rehearse at Linwood Road and both parties were impressed. "I was accepted pretty quickly by the band after meeting them. They respected my opinion on music and another thing that surprised them was that I understood patois, as I'd grown up with it. One of the nicest things ever said to me was by the band, 'you're the only white guy we know that can play a chop on a guitar like a black guy.' That was part of the acceptance. I had a voice in the band and I had musical input. I didn't write the songs of course but they knew I knew the music. I'd got a sense of rhythm which they didn't normally associate with a white guy." Pete remained close to the band throughout 1977 and beyond, effectively managing them whilst they were on the road. At the same time he was quietly working behind the scenes to secure the band a record deal.

By the middle of 1977 the band numbers had swelled with the addition of vocalist Alphonso Martin, a tool-setter by day, and experienced drummer Stephen 'Grizzly' Nisbett. Both were introduced to the group by Hinds. Michael Riley explains, "Alphonso was an occasional roadie with the band and an old junior school friend of David, when he joined in late 1976. He was already familiar with the material and provided sweet mid-range harmonies that sat between myself and Selwyn, who up until this point were the main supporting voices behind David. I was then responsible for working Alphonso's voice into the set, as well as finding a character for him in the line up." Grizzly took over the drums, initially for the session to record their next single, midway through the year after the departure of Colin Gabbidon and a brief stint by Donovan Shaw. Up to that point his involvement in reggae had been limited. "I explained I'd never played reggae before. I'd listened and enjoyed it but never really played it. They had an idea and knew what they wanted to do. I had to mould myself into the band's style. There were a lot of styles coming together at the same time with me coming from a rock and soul-funk background. I formulated an idea in my head and they said to play what I felt, which I did. I also felt like a learner again. The guys were very patient. I created my own identity, my own style, my own drum patterns, my own ideas. I didn't play a typical reggae beat."

Grizzly had first encountered Pulse at the Santa Rosa competition a year before. "The first time I heard them, I liked them. Not because they were a reggae band, but of all the bands around, they had a different sound. They were not the typical reggae band. They were radical. I liked what they did and how they did it and of course, David's voice was unique." He talked to Colin Gabbidon and the rest of the band, who soon after came to watch his band Force rehearse in Smethwick. Pulse also borrowed some of Force's equipment for a gig at Gloucester's Jamaican club. Grizzly's own involvement in reggae to that point had been pretty limited. Force included one Matumbi track in their set-list and like most of his contemporaries, he'd been enthused by Bob Marley's Catch A Fire album, which he'd heard blasting out from a record shop on Soho Road. "It was melodic, nice, it was really sweet and that's the way I imagined reggae to feel and sound. Bob Marley was what turned me onto reggae." Grizzly was older than the rest of the band and arrived with substantial experience having played a variety of musical styles with Penny Black, Rebel, Ray Gee & The Stax Explosion and Force. Born on Nevis, a tiny Caribbean island, in March 1948, Stephen Vincent Nisbett moved to Birmingham at the age of nine and fell into music almost by accident after his schooling in Saltley and Erdington. His parents had bought him his first set of drums, after constant nagging by the teenager, and following a brief flirtation with factory work, Grizzly took up music and the drums full-time when he joined the band Penny Black.

Their introduction to Dennis Bovell was also an introduction to his management company, called TJM. Headed by John Francis, they liked the sound of the band and took them to London to record the sprightly Nyah Luv at Strawberry Studios with Bovell in charge of production. He recalls, "the first time we were in the studio together, they were bristling with energy and signs of being great, they were determined and had that determination. Anytime I said, 'listen lads, go for it one more time,' it was always with the same kind of energy to try and really make it, they were serious about it." 5,000 copies were pressed, the single was released in September 1977 on the Anchor label by Tempus Records and quickly went to the top of the UK's reggae chart. "That was the first song I actually wrote, I give that track a lot of credit. Matumbi was very much an influence on the band especially visually so it was great that (their leader) Dennis Bovell produced Nyah Luv," explains Hinds. Basil Gabbidon recalls, "We'd done a lot of gigs, we enjoyed lots of influences and turned them into our own songs with a ska kinda feel to them. I was into heavy bass-lines, David put lyrics to the tunes and Selwyn would add the melodies. We were different from bands like Matumbi and Aswad, we were harder and more cheeky. We had a few songs at that time like Handsworth Revolution, Soldiers, Bad Man and Sound Check." Michael Riley describes their situation at that time. "The places we were playing didn't change but our audiences did. We were getting a following of young people and our gigs were getting jam packed. The problem was, that we couldn't get a record deal, so it becomes a dead end circuit. You could carry on doing it but nobody would know about you."

The man responsible for putting the finishing touches to Nyah Luv, known as mastering, was someone who would maintain close links with the band right up to the present day. John Dent was the engineer at Trident Studios who took the mixed version and produced the final master copy for production. As the in-house disc cutting engineer under Island Record's Sound Clinic banner, he continued to work with Steel Pulse throughout their Island period and subsequent releases under their own Wise Man Doctrine label, and in recent years has mastered their latest studio output, Rage & Fury and African Holocaust, from his own Loud Mastering studio in Taunton. Dent's tenure at Trident, Island, Exchange and Loud has put him at the top of his profession and he's mastered records for a who's who of the music industry's heavyweights ranging from Bob Marley, through the Police, Dire Straits, U2 and Kylie Minogue.

Their single success complemented the next exciting stage of the band's development and exposure. The explosion of punk was taking place across the UK and London was the place to be. The collaboration between punk and reggae bands was in its infancy and Steel Pulse were in the middle of it. They were the first reggae band to play a white punk club when they appeared on the same bill as Billy Idol's Generation X at the newly-opened Vortex club in Wardour Street on 1 August 1977. Admission cost £1 and Vivien Goldman from the music weekly Sounds described their performance, 'The punks went wild with good reason. Steel Pulse are the hardest new roots band I've seen, and they score heavily on their percussive rhythm section, dub effects jingling just behind the sound all the time, and their three-man-vocal, spreading the load and also broadening the frontal attack. Harmony hits hard.' Also on the bill that night were Art Attacks and the Lurkers. They followed that two nights later, playing with The Slits at Clouds in Brixton and then back to the Vortex with The Adverts and Lurkers on 16 August, the night Elvis Presley died. A week later they supported XTC at the Nashville Rooms, where Robin Banks saluted their performance for Zigzag magazine. 'Steel Pulse manage to maintain a standard of musicianship that is enviable... The music is reggae with a subtlety and a power I've rarely experienced before and all the songs are original material written joint effort style by the band. The numbers have titles like Prodigal, Bad Man, Nyah Luv, Bun Dem and Prediction. But the ace up their collective sleeve is an unforgettable number entitled Ku Klux Klan... The lyrics are sung to a tune that you simply can't get out of your brain, and for me this song is the highlight of the set. You have got to hear this song to have any idea how powerful it is. The lyrics on their own can't possibly convey the anger, frustration and exasperation that the words and music combined communicate so effortlessly. Another number that deserves to be singled out is Sound Check.'

Grizzly paints the scene. "At the time, punk wasn't fashonable when it started. It was punk that took reggae from A to B. They got into the whole consciousness of reggae music like Bob Marley and Burning Spear and they took reggae music as part of their whole curriculum. Everyone else seemed to diss reggae music but it was the punks who took it up. What society didn't want, the punks did. I see the marriage between punk and reggae as a good thing. If it wasn't for punk, a lot of reggae musicians, bands, singles and albums would never have happened nationally and internationally, or as quickly as it did." He also heaped praise on one individual in particular. "The punks and John Peel did a lot for Steel Pulse and reggae music. The first time anyone heard Steel Pulse on the radio was on John Peel's show. He'd heard a demo tape played at the Virgin record store in Marble Arch in London and played it on his programme." Pete King recalls, "Radio One DJ John Peel was very passionate about the band. A friend of mine, Fanny Feeney worked at Virgin Records and gave Peel a tape of the band I'd given her. Out of that we got a live session, recorded at Maida Vale and a lot of street cred." Recording of the live session took place on 31 August 1977, it went out on 29 September 1977 and contained Prodigal Son, Ku Klux Klan, Prediction and Bad Man. An integral but unsung part of the band's live performances was the road crew. Their live sound engineer was another Handsworth school pal Horace Ward, who started out as a vocalist before taking over the band's sound duties. He maintained close links with the group, as their soundman and production manager until 1989, subsequently working with a wide array of artists both live and in the studio after moving to New York. Max Prozelski was in charge of lighting, repairman Steve Keyes on PA, Andy Bowen was the driver and Nick Edmunds and Steve Smith, also known as Billy Whizz, completed the usual crew.

With the floodgates now open, the band went onto share the stage with a series of punk acts like The Clash, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Toyah, The Sex Pistols and Generation X again, at key London venues like the 100 Club, Dingwalls and the Marquee, whilst continuing to perform independently in student union halls and clubs up and down the country. They also played support to The Stranglers on some of their 40-date UK tour beginning in October, "Our first gig with them was in Leicester [De Montfort Hall on 3 October], a big hall, 4,000 people, we were booed off stage with lit matchsticks, cigarette butts and spitting. We pursued the first number and started the second and were just about to stop when Jet Black, the drummer, came on and berated the audience, who turned and suddenly they were well into us. We played, did an encore and everything - it was great, but it's the first time we realised how much power an artist has when the fans are really into him. They completely changed their tune." Pete King gives credit to the team that supported the band, off-stage. "We had great support in the form of our agents Alec Leslie who got the gigs, whilst TJM had introduced them to a great PR company with Keith Altham in charge and a French woman called Claudine Martinet, who looked after the band. Altham had worked for the NME and did PR for the Rolling Stones amongst others. It was very successful as we were always in the newspapers. We milked it for all it was worth, the whole Rock Against Racism thing, the link with punk, the Clash and Sex Pistols came to our gigs." He also paid tribute to other unsung friends of the band. "When in London we used to crash out on the floor of Dave Derby's flat near the Nashville Rooms or Peter and Linda's place in Primrose Hill. Our unofficial photographer and my girlfriend was an art student called Molly Dineen, who later became one of Britian's most celebrated documentary film-makers. I used to rope in as many people as I knew to help out. They included Martin Fuller, a graphic designer friend of mine who designed the logo that we used on the merchandise. We printed loads of t-shirts and very distinctive metal badges, hundreds of them." Fuller, a graduate of the Birmingham College of Art & Design, was a graphic designer for a jewellery manufacturer called Cherish, and designed the logo initially for a silver pendant for one of the band members. It was so well received that the design was then used to produce metal badges and adopted by the band for their single, Ku Klux Klan and their first album, Handsworth Revolution. Fuller recalls, "I was very pleased with it at the time, and so were the band. I don't recall any cash changing hands but I did get a credit on the album! I wasn't aware it was still being used today." He still lives in B'ham and deserves a lot of credit for designing a timeless logo that still captures the energy and character of the band today.

The punk-reggae collaboration had initially kicked off when Aswad toured with Eddie & The Hot Rods a year earlier and it subsequently became part of the Rock Against Racism campaign - aimed at promoting racial harmony through music - that swept the country for the next few years. Grizzly maintains, "It was natural that they'd ask us to join the movement. It was what we stood for. Everything we did was against racism. Particularly when we played Ku Klux Klan and wore the hoods on stage, it became so popular." In a September 1977 article titled 'Jah Punk - the black new wave,' Vivien Goldman from Sounds wrote, 'Steel Pulse are exciting to watch. They've got a nifty line in strongly rhythmic and tuneful original songs, and they're adept at getting people to sing along and dance to stuff they've never heard before - especially punks. I've never seen a band so remarkably in tune with a new wave audience. Pulse send out a message of youth and hardcore jollies, they're forthright and have a stylish flair for tough showmanship that adds the element of tough excitement to polished playing.' On 1 October, Manchester's top venue, the Electric Circus, opened its doors for the last time. Steel Pulse headlined alongside an array of punk bands like The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division and John Cooper Clarke. As a result, the track Macka Splaff appeared on a compilation album released on Virgin the following June called Live at the Electric Circus. The band were certainly making a name for themselves.

It was a frenetic time for Steel Pulse and in an important change from their punk liaisons, they were invited to back Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear, the legendary roots singer, for two nights at The Rainbow Theatre in London on 25 and 26 October 1977 with far-reaching results. Pete King recalls, "The Burning Spear coalition was arranged through Island Records. Because of my contacts I felt I could get them a deal with Island, which was the best place for them to go at the time. They'd tried at least three times before to get into Island but hadn't got past the reception desk. However, I could go straight to Chris Blackwell's assistant Denise Mills, one of the loveliest people I've ever met in the music business, who's sadly no longer with us. As far as I know Chris Blackwell didn't want to sign the band, he couldn't see it, but because Denise Mills believed in them, it happened. The Spear gig was the clincher. It was like showcasing the band. It was a very important development in them getting the record deal." And the night of the second Rainbow performance was the night that they signed to Island Records. They were happy to join Island, home to bands like Bob Marley & The Wailers, Black Uhuru, Third World and their fellow British reggae pioneers Aswad, as they believed they would retain some artistic control, which they felt they wouldn't with other labels. Initially they'd been turned down by Island, as well as by Virgin and others when Ronnie and David had taken the band's demo tapes around a handful of record companies but without success. The demo tapes had been produced from rehearsals in Hinds' cellar at Linwood Road and it was King, who later became the band's manager, who broke the deadlock when his powers of persuasion finally convinced Island to give the group the chance to perform alongside Burning Spear.

The band declined to back Spear, but did agree to appear as a support act, with Aswad taking over the backing band duties (the live performance by Burning Spear was later released on an album). The Rainbow gigs themselves turned out to be a significant milestone for the band and they followed it up by accompanying Spear, one of the band's earliest influences, on his memorable but short British tour with further dates in Bristol (Colston Hall), Manchester (New Century Hall), Birmingham (Hippodrome) and Nottingham (Palais). "The Burning Spear gig was a turning point. Pulse were not a backing band at that time. The only person we backed was Ken Boothe in the very early days during his tour of the Midlands. We bought his popular album, learnt the tracks and he'd turn up ten minutes before we went on stage. He never came to rehearsals. So we wouldn't back even Burning Spear," explains Grizzly. He continues, "playing with Burning Spear, oh man, that was an experience. Seeing someone you admire and respect, we never imagined we'd be that close, you'd listen to his albums, you love what he's doing. You're young and upcoming musicians, still learning your trade and you're doing a show with Burning was really an experience. We couldn't wait to get off stage to watch his show. It was a real turning point and opened us up to a different audience." David Hinds emphasized the importance of his influence, "With acts like Burning Spear and activists like Marcus Garvey, we decided to cling onto those words. At that time, blacks in Britain were in a serious identification crisis and the words of Burning Spear, even more than Marley at that particular time, was what we had to hang onto to pave our way throughout the British system." He continues, "I would say Burning Spear was responsible for the birth of Rastafari in England," This was the break the band had been longing for.

The recording contract with Island was crucial to Steel Pulse's development but it came with strings as Pete King, instrumental in the deal, reveals. "There was one proviso with the deal. My real interest was in producing the band. All I wanted to do was produce and make records. I thought I could make it happen and bring the best out of them. I had strong opinions on the music. Island said the deal would only happen if I managed them. The only way for it to work was for me to manage and co-ordinate them. They wouldn't let me produce, 'we've got to have a name producer, it's a purely commercial consideration,' they said, so I was made executive producer as part of the deal. The deal itself was a 5-album deal worth around £250,000 (although Island only exercised three options) and it was written in that I'd be the executive producer. The publishing rights went to Blue Mountain Music which was great as that was a very special part of the Island organisation, usually reserved for Blackwell's favourites. The deal meant that Island would provide the wherewithal for the album and would promote, publicise and produce the album. The band then had to repay the direct costs of the album's production. However, I missed out on the division of the publishing rights and it took nearly a year until I had my own contract as well. I was very disappointed by that as I'd worked very hard to get them a deal, I'd managed to sell a British reggae band to Island Records afterall, a hell of an achievement I thought." In addition, Island were forced to take TJM, the band's former management company, to the High Court to obtain their release from their contract. The New Musical Express paper publicised the band's signing to Island with the record company's managing director Tim Clarke saying: "We are delighted to sign Steel Pulse, who are established as one of Britain's finest reggae bands." Pete King said: "The reason we signed with Island was that we were so impressed with the way they handled Burning Spear when they came to Britain."

As the year drew to a close, they were featured on ITV's The London Weekend Show and in Jeremy Marre's film, British Reggae, and completed a ten-date tour in December as their momentum and influence continued to gather pace. They'd also developed their own highly original visual stage persona, as Basil recalls, "Michael (Riley) got the idea for our costumes, he was big on presentation, a show-man. When we appeared on stage at the Rainbow, the whole place went crazy. I wore African robes, Ronnie dressed up as a sultan, David wore a convict costume with arrows and everything and Michael looked like a preacher with a wide-rimmed quaker hat. We looked very different and that helped." It was a unique visual diversion from the norm that captured the mood of the time as band members adopted an array of symbolic stage costumes and Riley and Martin donned the famous white Klan hoods. Basil continues, "You go and see some bands and they just stand there and play, the music may be good, but because they just stand there it is boring. We work hard on our act to bring energy and excitement to the audience. They may not understand what we are singing about, but they enjoy the music because of the approach." As Neil Spencer remarked in an NME feature, 'Once seen, Pulse are hard to forget. Sartorially they range through African robes to militant chic to Great Gatsby to tail coats to priest vestments and most points between. They're a seven-piece; two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, two harmonicas, percussion beyond counting, six hats, several beards, five excellent voices and seven pairs of shades... Musically and lyrically, they're skilled and inventive. For one thing, there's a lot of them; they're young (average age early twenties); they write their own material; they're musically skilled and rhythmically compelling, and are totally captivating live. Their line-up also allows numerous permutations in sound and texture during the show. They can sing glorious five-part acapella harmony, play hard-hitting rockers, improvise in-number dubs, throw in some fine instrumental solos, and generally put on a show that knows how to grab an audience and tighten its grip.' Steel Pulse were making their mark.
Chapter 3: A Reggae Revolution to follow. Originally published November 2011.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Steel Pulse - Chapter 1

Steel Pulse in all their early 1975 glory. LtoR: Selwyn Brown, David Hinds, Michael Riley, Basil Gabbidon; [front row] Ronnie McQueen, Colin Gabbidon.
For a long time I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. I interviewed many of the band's former members but never managed to tie down the two men who would've enhanced my research considerably, namely David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, who are both still with the band today. Now that I live in Cambodia, my research has come to an end. Nevertheless, rather than let my notes gather dust in a forgotten corner of my laptop, I thought I would release each chapter on my blog just to give everyone an insight into this incredible musical group. So let's begin with Chapter 1 of thirteen.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 1 : Linwood Road Runnings
The Handsworth district of Birmingham is rightly credited as the birthplace of Steel Pulse, Britain's premier reggae group. Though the story of the band's roots also stretch far across the Atlantic Ocean to the beautiful but tiny rural community of Buff Bay, on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. Overlooking the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Buff Bay lies at the foot of the mist-shrouded Blue Mountains, famed for their coffee beans and bananas. That's where Basil Glendon Gabbidon was born on 29 October 1955, the eldest of four talented Gabbidon brothers. Soon after his birth, the family moved to the island's bustling capital Kingston, where his father Joseph, a carpenter by trade, built the family home between his appearances on the stage as an amateur entertainer, actor and comedian. His brother Colin was born ten days short of Basil's second birthday and they both spent most of their early childhood in the coastal parish of St Mary's at the home of their grandmother with two other brothers and a multitude of cousins. Colin recalls much of their time in the lush countryside revolved around getting into mischief and having lots of fun. Their father and mother, Dorothy, a nurse, were no different to many of their fellow Jamaicans in believing that The Mother Country (England) held the promise of a better life. Many Jamaicans had fought for Britain in the Second World War and in the late fifties Basil's father joined the back-end of the 'Windrush' generation of Jamaican and West Indian immigrants who poured over to England in search of work and a better future, followed a couple of years later by his mother. Soon after Jamaican independence, in 1963, Basil accompanied by Colin, followed their parents to Britain, just before his ninth birthday. "My dad picked us up at the airport with a bowler hat on. I thought, oh, we must be in England, he's wearing a bowler hat," Basil recalls. Before their arrival, their parents had lived in Cardiff but when the boys joined them, they moved to become part of a thriving Afro-Caribbean community in the Birmingham inner city area of Handsworth.

Their first home, in Alfred Road, was in the centre of their community. Colin attended Rookery Road junior school, where he enjoyed football and cycling and where his artistic flair soon became evident at a young age when his drawing of a tea plantation impressed his teachers. As he explains, "I was already developing an identity and was showing others how to draw. But Basil was a brilliant artist, much better than me at the time, on a different level. His sketching was just so good, his drawing would 'get up from the page' which meant it was very good." Once Colin moved to Handsworth Wood Boys school in Church Lane, the input from specialist art teachers honed his skills and he soon learned how to paint correctly. One of his sidelines was drawing, and selling, pictures of the pop idols of the time like David Cassidy and Michael Jackson, to the girls in the school next door. That made the otherwise shy and reserved youngster, very popular. Colin enjoyed life at Handsworth Wood. He loved his art lessons and his sports, playing for the school at football and also representing them at cross-country. He also took part in the sprint relays though never reached the heady heights of Basil, whose own sporting prowess was exceptional.

It had taken Basil a while to adjust to his new surroundings including the freezing weather after the carefree lifestyle he'd known in the Caribbean. School was simply so different to what he'd been used to. The teaching methods and the whole concept was totally alien to him and it took a year or so to settle into the rhythm of life in England. His secondary school education began at Handsworth Wood Boys school and that's where Basil began to prosper and blossom. He was fortunate that in his words, "all the bright kids went to that school at the same time, it was just pure energy" and included amongst his schoolfriends was David Hinds, who would loom large in Basil's formative years. "Handsworth Wood was a good school. One of the first things they did was to find out what you could do, what you were good at. I wanted to play the trumpet but couldn't blow it, so took up the trombone instead. In a way its the nicest brass instrument to play and it gave me a vibe for electric guitar, a sort of natural progression." John Surtees, his school music teacher and a folk club held at the school were additional influences at that time and helped him to read music and gain a better appreciation of what he was hearing and playing.

In addition to playing the trombone in the school's brass band, Basil had become interested in the guitar at the same time. His desire to play music was all consuming. His father had an old guitar with broken strings and Basil took up the challenge. He repaired the strings, bought himself a book of guitar chords and learnt to play the guitar from scratch. "Its not like today, we made things happen ourselves," as he recalls teaching himself to play. Initially, Basil wasn't interested in reggae. It was still a relatively new form of music coming over from Jamaica and instead, the music mad youngster preferred heavier tunes from the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, Mandrill and the Isley Brothers. "We turned on the radio and listened to pop music and the Stones, I liked the way they performed their songs. I didn't like the Beatles 'cause everyone else liked them." One of the first reggae tunes to catch his ear was a reggae version of Blue Moon, the old Rogers & Hart classic. Another tune that had a bigger impact on him was Blood & Fire. Released in 1970 by Niney The Observer (aka Winston Holness, but called Niney when he lost a thumb in a workshop accident), it was amongst the avalanche of sound system pre-releases that found their way to Britain and were eagerly snapped up by the flourishing Caribbean communities. However, it wasn't until Bob Marley's classic 1973 album, Catch A Fire was released that Basil was finally hooked after he heard it played in a local park during a festival, and his desire to play reggae music became a serious aim.

Music wasn't the only interest that Basil enjoyed at Handsworth Wood. He was sports mad. He represented the school at table tennis and football and loved basketball. He was even better at cricket, both as a batsman and a bowler, and went onto represent the East Midlands against their West Midlands rivals in a schools championship game at Edgbaston. However his will to win and a desire to succeed was never more evident than when he was running. "I picked the hurdles 'cause everyone could sprint but the hurdles required a certain technique, discipline, commitment and a bit of bravery. The 110 metres hurdles wasn't as glamorous as the 100 metre dash but I enjoyed it." He ran for the school, he ran for his district, Aston, he then went onto run for Birmingham in the Warwickshire games and then for Warwickshire in the English Schools Championships. He was on a roll and he didn't stop until he achieved his aim, to be the best. In the 1973 Championship finals held at Bebington, Basil ran the 110 metres high hurdles in 15.2 seconds to win the title of Schools Champion of England, a considerable feat in anyone's book. He was 17 years old at the time, he trained two nights a week with his local athletics club Birchfield Harriers and took part in track meetings but it wasn't his first love. "Training was quite hard. If I could've made a living at it I would've continued but I loved music too much. And I knew that we'd make it."
Music had been a constant with Colin and Basil from an early age. Alongwith a neighbour, Donald Perrin, they practised Johnny Nash songs, with Basil on guitar accompanying the other two, singing and day-dreaming of getting their break on the tv show, Opportunity Knocks. Basil was a self-taught guitarist, though at this time, Colin hadn't picked up on an instrument. The influence of an older cousin, Rupert, who they went to watch play in his band, a local reggae outfit called Cock & The Woodpecker's, alongwith the music of the Jackson Five, planted the seed of an idea in Colin's head that he wanted to play drums. Without the funds to take his dream any further at the time, he carved his own drumsticks and practised on his parent's kitchen chairs or a large wooden box. In fact, when Colin and the other members of Steel Pulse began rehearsing seriously, Colin was still using a wooden box to provide the rhythm beat. It wasn't until he left school and started working, that he was able to get his first drumkit.

While Basil and Colin had begun their journey on the sun-blessed island of Jamaica, David Hinds was born in Handsworth in June 1956. His parents, much like the Gabbidon family, had emigrated to the industrial heartland of England in the early 50's in search of work and a better life. They both came from St Ann's in Jamaica. "Our parents brought with them the native culture. Though we were the first generation of British-born blacks, we never really felt like British subjects. We all grew up within Jamaican households in a Jamaican community," states Hinds. David, the youngest son of seven children, was born into a working class Jamaican family. His father Charles was a welder and his mother a bicycle factory labourer, and he absorbed similar influences to the Gabbidon brothers, both musical, "we all thought Mandrill was the baddest band that ever walked the planet," and political, "the image of Malcolm X lying in a pool of blood had a major impact on me, as did the assassination of John F Kennedy and that of Martin Luther King." He developed his musical interest through his roadie brother and friendship with his guitar-playing schoolmate Basil. Hinds continues, "Basil placed the guitar in my hands. I heard Marley play guitar, I could relate. I played records, slowed them down until I caught that chord, that guitar lick. I learned the hard way. I didn't go to any school where someone sat down and started giving me manuscripts to dictate or notarize. It wasn't anything like that. It was me learning the grass roots way, the street way, where you literally played the record, listening to it over and over again."

When Colin Gabbidon wasn't at school, or playing table tennis at the Canon Street Church youth club, he and Basil would discuss ways of getting something going in a musical sense. Their thoughts turned to establishing a Gabbidon dynasty with their other two brothers to rival the Jackson's, or Basil would be teaching his friends how to play guitar in the kitchen of their terraced home at 69 Headingley Road and that's where they first began their jamming sessions with David Hinds. It was 1973 and they had dreams of making it big. Colin was still at school and had to make do with his wooden box as a substitute drumkit. To begin with, he was overlooked as the drummer and another schoolfriend was mentioned. However, the normally shy Colin surprised even himself by putting his foot down and demanded his place in the fledgling trio, which Basil and David accepted. They soon co-opted another school pal, Ronnie 'Stepper' McQueen and his bass guitar into the sessions. Ronnie, Jamaican-born, moved to Handsworth with his family as a toddler and had left school to learn his trade as a draftsman.

By this time Basil had reached the sixth form at Handsworth Wood. David Hinds was one of his closest friends and they both had Saturday jobs at the Co-op supermarket in Winson Green. They loved music and they loved art. So much so that they left Handsworth Wood and went to the Bournville College of Art to continue their studies. Basil took a one year vocational course in graphics with a plan to go into television advertising, although "it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be" he remembers. He left after his course finished and worked for a year at the Co-op as a full-time shop assistant. David, who joined Basil in the supermarket on Saturday's only, took a foundation course and moved onto the Art College at Margaret Street after a while to continue his studies. When they weren't working or studying, the two friends were consumed by their real passion, music. With the cash from his job, Basil bought his first electric guitar, a bright red Top Twenty, for the princely sum of £20. "My second guitar was black and looked like a Gibson but sounded nothing like it," he smiled, "and later I bought a WEM amp for £60 and a head box for £45. That was a lot of money in those days. Everybody used to plug into my amp and rehearse. I've always believed that if you invest you always get a return on it," and so it proved as they began to believe in themselves.

Their rehearsals moved to Ronnie's loft at his parent's home in Sandwell Road and Selwyn Brown, who'd returned to the area from Nottingham and worked for an insurance company, and Michael Riley soon joined the rapidly growing band. They were all former Handsworth Wood schoolfriends. Selwyn played the organ, Michael was a vocalist and another school chum, Trevor Christie, played percussion for a short while before moving away to live in Coventry. The lead singer was initially going to be Horace Ward, a soloist with the Handsworth Wood schoolchoir, who'd also joined in with the Basil and David guitar lessons, and though he rehearsed, he decided that singing reggae wasn't for him and left. Horace returned in 1976 as their roadie and sound engineer for their live gigs, remaining with the group for the next dozen years as engineer and production manager. Their fledgling sessions were mainly covers of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh tracks, some Ken Boothe and John Holt numbers and Marvin Gaye's Lets Get It On was a favourite. Colin and Basil liked all styles of music, from the pop charts to reggae to jazz. In fact jazz was Colin's first love. He recalls, "that's what helped us to later create our own individual style, that's why Steel Pulse were so totally different. When Basil bought Marley's Catch A Fire album, it was a big influence, a real eye-opener." He continues, "I studied Carlton Barrett's (Marley's drummer) style, as well as Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd, from the jazz point of view. We watched bands like Cock & the Woodpecker's and a local lover's rock band called Velvet Shadow, but our style was totally different to these bands. The Steel Pulse sound had a real hard edge to it."

Colin was now sixteen, it was the middle of 1974 and he was due to leave Handsworth Wood to join the workforce. His aim was to get a job and to buy his first drumkit. He managed both almost immediately. The job, as a trainee tool maker for a steel company, provided him with the funds to buy a four-shell Premier Olympic kit for around £100. He was ecstatic. "I kept it simple in the early days but played it loud and heavy. I remember that I played the bass drum so hard that I broke the foot pedal not long after I got the kit. It was cheap so I bought the proper Premier pedal, I was really excited. As I improved, I played around with the groove and the beat to keep it different and not repetitive." The drumkit took his music to a new level and he continued to paint in any spare moments when he wasn't working, rehearsing with the band or practising Aikido, a Japanese martial art he'd taken up around that time.

Coinciding with the arrival of Colin's new drums, the band moved their rehearsals to David's cellar at 16 Linwood Road, which was to be their base for the next few years. As Selwyn Brown recalls, "we used to rehearse in Ronnie's attic bedroom for a while. Then David's dad let us use his basement at Linwood Road, as we got more serious about it and just started practising and practising. We basically taught each other how to play, so there was no ego thing. We just wanted to play and enjoy music and inspire people and write something conscious." At the time, Basil and Selwyn were responsible for most of the lead vocals though Colin felt David could take on more of the mantle and did his best to persuade him to do so. Alongside covers of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, The Abyssinians and The Gladiators, there were early versions of their own compositions like Nyah Luv, Handsworth Revolution and a rock-soul track that Basil wrote called Conscious. Colin recalls, "Basil was writing a lot of music as was David. A lot of things were written in 1974. I think we were finding our identity, that was when we were clicking. We'd been together for less than a year and were working so fast. The excitement was high, we were anxious, we were keen, we wanted to express ourselves. We were serious and our music reflected what we were." The name of the band posed a problem, which was solved by Ronnie, who had a passion for horse-racing. He liked the name of one horse in particular, the Scobie Breasley-trained 1972 Irish Derby winner called Steel Pulse and suggested to the rest of the band that they take the name as their own. Everyone agreed. It seemed to fit perfectly.

It was now the right moment to expose the band to public scrutiny. Lee Allen, their advisor-cum-manager at the time and former keyboardist with local band The Phantoms, booked them their first live gig locally at a small working-class public house called the Crompton Arms. A hub for local bands at the time, the pub was located on Crompton Road in Lozells and the audience for their debut performance, in January 1975, numbered the pub's regulars and friends of the band. Selwyn did the majority of the lead vocals as they played a mix of cover versions by Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Ken Boothe and some dub numbers. The six-strong band line-up for that debut gig was Selwyn Brown, David Hinds, Michael Riley, Ronnie McQueen, Basil and Colin Gabbidon. It went well, Lee Allen recalls, "all hell let loose, everyone was so excited," the band received the princely sum of £20 for their efforts and they used it as a springboard for a handful of gigs at other local venue's like Barbarellas on Cumberland Street and the Grand Hotel in the city centre, the Ridgeway on Soho Road, the Tower Ballroom in Edgbaston, at former British heavyweight boxing champion Bunny Johnson's club in Digbeth before it burned down and they returned to their old school on one occasion to play a reunion gig.

It wasn't all plain sailing for the band. Even the black clubs put up barriers, especially against youths with dreadlocks. As Michael Riley points out, "they started saying, to get in the club [the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth] you had to wear a shirt with no hat and your hair combed out, which eliminated all Dreads and got all these artificial, snobbish black people to take over for a while. But there weren't enough, so they had to start allowing hats in again as long as they were allowed to look under them for locks first." At another club, the Jodori, just outside Handsworth, the band used to have to smuggle in the two of their members who had locks so that by the time the enraged owner saw them they were on stage and it was too late. Grizzly Nisbett backs up the story. "From the word go, we were not the average reggae band, playing lovers rock, so it made it difficult to play some black venues. On top of that some of us had dreads. I was the first to have dreads, so we used to sneak me into some of the clubs with a hat over my head and at the last minute, set my kit up and start playing before they realised. They thought we were too radical and didn't conform. We were about consciousness and for black people to learn who they are and what they are. We could play love songs anytime but we wanted to educate the masses like Marley and Spear did. We were hardcore, there were no half-measures, this was what we were about." Recalling their early struggles, David Hinds explains, "in our community at the time, our peers were questioning what we were trying to achieve becoming a reggae band. They were saying that we should stick to playing in basements until we got our act together because there was no reggae in Birmingham and no acts to identify with. The only reggae was coming out of Jamaica and London. We got involved with the punk scene and the Anti-Nazi League rallies because the punks were adopting anything the system was rejecting, which included reggae. There was never any airplay and always a limit to where we could perform."

The history of UK reggae dates back to the arrival of the first large wave of immigrants from the Caribbean in the late 50's and early 60's. The demand for music from their home shores was met by the newly formed labels like Island Records, R&B records, Blue Beat and later Pama and Trojan Records. By the late 60's Pama and Trojan both had chains of shops spread around London and both labels specialised in issuing productions from Jamaican artists/producers. Soon however, UK companies began financing their own productions. Pama had a great band in The Mohawks, but tended to make cover versions of current soul and pop hits hoping to emulate their success. Artists like Junior English, Winston Groovy and others were working as both recording and live acts. Laurel Aitken, Owen Gray and Roy Shirley were amongst those who had settled in the UK and a kind of reggae cabaret circuit was created. These concerts were attended by an age group spanning from teenagers to pensioners. During this period the flavour of recordings coming from Jamaica reflected the climate of political and social change on the island. It seemed people were crying out for an identity and change and the answer came largely through Rastafarianism. Reggae, for a long time called the 'sufferers music,' began to deliver songs with a message and spirituality. Black awareness and pride which had been gaining momentum in the USA spread to the Caribbean and the UK. For most hardcore reggae fans all real reggae had to come from Jamaica. The UK didn't have 'the sound'. It was regarded as soft. Early pioneers like The Cimarons, who'd begun as a backing band for visiting Jamaican acts were beginning to forge a distinctive UK sound. A momentum was building and slowly things were changing.
The early 70's saw a boom in the popularity of the sound system. Sir Coxsone, Duke Reid, Neville the Enchanter, Count Shelley, Fatman and many more around the country gave a focal point for local youths. A very distinct brand of homegrown roots music was emerging. One of the key movers and shakers was Dennis Bovell, a Barbadian who started the Sufferer Hi-Fi Sound System in North London and went onto form the band Matumbi in 1970. They quickly became a popular live act supplying the backing to visiting reggae artists such as Pat Kelly, Ken Boothe and I-Roy, as well as touring in their own right. Bovell, supposedly the ringleader of the 'Carib 12', was jailed in 1976 for his part in a raid on a Sound clash in London. He later recorded with session drummer Jah Bunny as The African Brothers and as African Stone. By the mid 70's the musical climate in the UK was certainly taking off. Jamaican reggae was arguably going through its most creative period. Brilliant new sounds were arriving from Jamaica on a weekly basis. There was also the emerging Punk Rock movement. The Clash and The Sex Pistols were formed and stated the enormous influence that reggae had on their music and outlook. Checking out reggae shows and going to sound system dances became a popular pastime for white youths.

In North London, Black Slate had formed in 1974 and toured with the likes of Delroy Wilson and Ken Boothe. Their most influential release was Sticksman, which had been originally cut as a dubplate, its popularity gained it a full release and it became an underground classic. Sticksman was the phrase used at the time for a petty thief or mugger. Constantly touring, Black Slate became one of the most popular live reggae acts around Britain. More and more reggae bands were forming, not just session musicians as in Jamaica, but bands made up of friends and local musicians. In South London, Reggae Regular formed around the talented keyboard player George Fleah Clarke and they later signed a major deal with CBS Records. Aswad were formed in the Ladbroke Grove area of West London by Brinsley Forde, George Oban, Courtney Hemmings, Donald Benjamin and Angus Gaye. They forged a large and loyal live following and were snapped up by Island Records, before going onto have a long and successful career. In Southall, Misty in Roots, acknowledged for their legendary live shows, started their own People Unite label, touring relentlessly and refused to sign to a major label. Black Stones were a three-man vocal outfit, Brimstone included ex-Aswad duo Bunny McKenzie and Tony Robinson in their line-up, whilst The Cimarons, formed in the Harlesden area of London in the 60's, carried on their reggae ambassadorial role well into the latter part of the decade. And of course, Steel Pulse were making their mark as well.

With sound systems as the main avenue for the youths of Handsworth and the other Caribbean communities to hear their favourite music, the top systems like Quaker City, Mafia Hi-Fi and Studio City travelled around the country playing to packed audiences in clubs and 'blues' dances. Vying with each other for the latest pre-releases, they also bought unique dubplates from bands to play exclusively at these sessions and an emerging Steel Pulse were no exception although they were prudent in the number of dubplates they produced. Colin, buoyed by Steel Pulse's early success, suggested that they take their music to a major record label like Island even at this early stage though Basil curbed his younger brother's enthusiasm by saying the time wasn't right. The band were ambitious and passionate about their music but at the same time realistic and shrewd enough to realise that they had to perfect their unique sound before unleashing it on the public at large. Basil often said that to achieve lasting success they had to stand out from the rest and to have an 'international' sound that would appeal to as many people as possible. One of their attempts to present their unique sound was to call their particular style of music, 'Taffri'. It didn't catch on as other styles like punk rock or 2-Tone would in the future, but it demonstrated their acute desire to create something new and different.

Colin would often accompany Basil to watch other bands play. His own favourites were The Cimarons from London, though a couple of gigs they attended in 1975 were to have a significant impact on them both. A couple of years earlier they'd watched the Jackson Five at The Odeon in the city centre, but that was topped when in July 1975 they watched the great Bob Marley and the Wailers, who'd blown them away with his Catch A Fire album two years earlier and then followed that up with his subsequent releases, Burnin' and Natty Dread. His influence on their music was considerable. Marley's support act that night at The Odeon were Third World and the Gabbidon brothers were mightily impressed, with Basil exclaiming, "yes, that's the sound, that's the style I'm after." A couple of months later, the two brothers travelled down to the Notting Hill Carnival in London and were able to see another Third World performance and to speak to members of the band afterwards. Their friendship would last for many years to come.
Chapter 2: Single Success to follow. Originally published 2011.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Uncovering the truth

Tess Davis and the Duryo­dhana statue
Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis' extensive report on Temple Looting in Cambodia appeared in the latest British Journal of Criminology....and you can read it @

Tess Davis and her efforts to locate stolen Cambodian sculptures are highlighted in the latest edition of Bostonia @  Give this woman a medal. Please.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Getting back on my bike

Mony and Malen with their directors at the Sydney Film Festival
Clearly there are not enough hours in the day for me to keep my blog updated. Piss poor if you ask me. I need to get my finger out and get back online and posting stuff that is of some interest. Take the Sydney Film Festival premiere of the movie Ruin, a gritty tale made in Cambodia and starring two Khmer lead actors, Ros Mony and Sang Malen. The kids had a ball I'm told and I'm so pleased we managed to get their visas to go to Australia, even though the embassy here in Phnom Penh made us jump through hoops. Anyway, all's well that ends well. Talking of ending well, the final episode of Game of Thrones is next week. Gripping stuff and hopefully Jon Snow doesn't meet the same fate as Ned Stark and loses his head. Oh, and now the World Cup begins. Yummy.


Friday, June 6, 2014

The red carpet awaits

Ros Mony (cap) and Sang Malen - off to Australia and the red carpet at Sydney Film Festival
Okay, they have their visas at last, and Ros Mony (with cap) and Sang Malen will be off to Australia on Sunday, to feature on the red carpet, as the two stars of the gritty movie, RUIN, which won awards at the Venice Film Festival last year and which will have its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival next week. We had to jump through numerous hoops to get their visas, even though its the Australians themselves who invited them to appear in front of the mass ranks of the movie media at the festival. Maybe no-one told the embassy here to make the process go smoothly! Both Mony and Malen have been through the craziness of festivals before, last year in Venice, so it should be a piece of cake. Mony has had to postpone other acting work to make this trip and will later this year be seen in The Last Reel, when that's released, while Malen is so struck with movies now, she's in the first year of a film studies course at the royal university. Nice kids and I hope they have a fabulous time in Sydney.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

They're home

Three statues arrive back in Cambodia - picture courtesy of Sabay
Three of the statues smuggled out of Cambodia in the 1970s, from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker temple complex to be precise, have come home. They were presented to the press at the Council of Ministers today. The Balarama (returned by Christie's auction house), Duryodhana (from Sotheby's) and Bhima (from Norton Simon Museum) statues - which were originally displayed with six other statues to depict a mythical battle scene from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata - will be housed in a special collection at the National Museum very soon.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie poster

The Last Reel movie poster - click to enlarge
The Kulikar Sotho-directed movie, The Last Reel, a Cambodian production with international production standards, is waiting for its film festival debut this year. In the meantime, a trailer has been completed, which you can see @ and this poster, depicting scenes from the film itself. I'll bring you more news as it happens. Visit the film's website, which is under construction @

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