Carlos Santana – The Interview

Carlos Santana – The Interview

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Alchemy. It’s that magic, intangible ingredient that determines the creative heights one can achieve in a collaborative process.

Over the course of three landmark albums, Santana, Abraxas and Santana III, the members of the legendary San Francisco outfit proved time and time again how the perfect musical alchemy could create a wondrous tapestry of timeless, groundbreaking music.

Now more than 40 years since they disbanded, Santana is back with a new CD appropriately titled Santana IV. With a lineup featuring Carlos Santana (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards), Michael Shrieve (drums), Neal Schon (guitar) and Michael Carabello (percussion) plus current Santana band members Karl Perazzo (percussion) and Benny Rietveld (bass), the group has delivered an outstanding batch of new material redolent of their classic early ‘70s era but burnished with a modern sensibility as well.

Joyous alchemy indeed…We spoke to leader/visionary Carlos Santana, who couldn’t hide his immense satisfaction with the glorious results of the group’s first new album in decades.

santana iv album art

Rock Cellar Magazine: How did this long awaited reunion come to fruition?

Carlos Santana: It was Neal. Neal Schon was very gracious to seek me out like a guided missile. (laughs) It seemed everywhere I went for about a year and a half, I mean, everywhere! (laughs)

And he kept saying the same thing, “Man, I wanna play with you. When I play with you something else happens. I want to do an album with you.”

First he wanted to do an album with yours truly and a bunch of other guitar players. But I said, “No, I don’t want to do the other guitar player thing, I want to just play with you.” Then I told him, “Hey, why don’t we call Gregg Rolie and Michael Carabello and Michael Shrieve and go that way?” He said, “Wow, oh, okay!” (laughs)

So we went that way and this time everybody was ready, Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve and Michael Carabello and of course Neal wanted to do it. The time was right for this one.

After all these years I think all of us arrived and recognized with clarity the beautiful chemistry we have together as Santana.

You see, it’s all about chemistry. Where it’s The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or The Temptations; certain bands just have that chemistry and thankfully we’re one of those bands.  So we talked about it, we called each other and we made a date to meet up and play.

We came up with a bunch of songs. I think there were 50 to 60 songs and we settled for the ones that are the most competed and ready to be hatched. So the songs that we put together are the ones that wound up on the new album.

Was there a pivotal song you nailed for the new record where you felt, yes, this reunion is gonna work?

Carlos Santana: It’s the single, Anywhere Where You Wanna Go, that the one. As soon as Gregg started singing and playing the Hammond organ and here come the guitars, congas and timbales, everything. It just felt right and we were all like, “Okay, here we go again!” That chemistry was there right away.

Over the years, what did you miss the most about the time spent with your Santana band mates, Gregg Rolie, Michael Carabello, Michael Shrieve and Neal Schon, members of the lineup for the group’s first three classic albums?

Carlos Santana: I missed my friends. In the early days, Michael Carabello and Gregg Rolie and I actually lived together for about six months and it was really crazy. (laughs)  I missed the chemistry, especially living with Gregg Rolie and Michael Carabello—Michael Shrieve came later and then Neal Schon came on later as well. But Michael Carabello and I started the whole thing. Then we hooked up with Gregg in Palo Alto.

Like I said, it’s the chemistry of all of us playing together. That’s what I missed.

Speak about your special songwriting partnership with Gregg Rolie.

Carlos Santana: Alchemy. Chemistry. There’s a resonant sound vibration that we both emit when we’re together and it immediately it becomes endearing. To a lot of people it’s like, “Hey, that’s the sound.”

It’s in the way he sings and the way he approached the Hammond organ and the way he approaches writing songs.  He trusts me and I trust him. All of them told me at one time or another the same thing that I say to them. When we play together, Gregg and Neal told me, “When we play with you, you bring something out of us that we can’t get out of ourselves by ourselves.”

And I go, “Well, I feel the same way, man. (laughs) When I play with you guys something else happens to me as well so thank you for that compliment.” I’m glad we’re healthy and we’re clear and I look forward to doing Santana V.

Will the band do some touring behind the new CD?

Carlos Santana: So far, we’re gonna test it out.  We’ve got three concerts; one at Madison Square Garden and two other places and then we’ll see how it goes. My wife, Cindy Blackman, is playing drums also. Maybe we can put two bands onstage, the Santana band and the Supernatural band because they’re’ both really important to me, especially with the new music I’m doing.

I’m just completing a new CD right now with Ronnie Isley and it is incredible! People don’t realize but the Beatles came to invade here in America with Twist & Shout which is a Ronnie Isley song.

When you hear the original version by The Isley Brothers next to the other one you’re like, “Oh dang!”

I feel really grateful that my wife and I are recording with Ronnie Isley. We did 16 songs in four days and it’s killin’ killin’! We’re doing songs like I Just Want To Make Love To You by Muddy Waters, It All Makes Sense, You Can’t Make Peace and Gypsy Woman by Curtis Mayfield. We cover a lot of great songs but it sounds like us; it don’t sound like the originals.

While working on the new album, having not played there as unit for over 40 years, did it take some time to click or was that cohesion there again right away?

Carlos Santana: No, absolutely not. No, no, no. It was as natural as rain water. You start playing and it’s there. You don’t have to fabricate or try to do anything at all; you just breathe and let it out and there’s the sound. Simple as that.

Gregg and I, Michael Carabello and I and Michael Shrieve and I and Neal Schon and I, you know, all of us create a sound that was copied by a lot of people including The Rolling Stones, Chicago.

All of a sudden everybody had congas including Sly Stone and Miles Davis. Now there were people playing congas before us, whether it was Olatunji or Motown, it’s just that it didn’t jell the way that we were doing it in Santana.

At least the way we did it, people were like, “Oh, that sounds like Santana,” which to me is kind of funny because all I tried to do was combine John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King with Tito Puente, Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri and Olatunji and voila, here comes Santana.

It’s funny ’cause nowadays if I wanted to do an album with Derek Trucks or Gary Clark Jr. or any brother like that, as soon as they put the congas on, they say, “Well this is gonna sound like Santana.”

And I say, “No, it’s not Santana, it’s African music. So don’t give me that credit. Let’s give that credit to our African sisters and brothers ‘cause that’s where the sound came from to begin with.”

To the band’s credit, the vibe is both retro and modernistic. In terms, of writing and recording, were you mindful of the band’s sound/style attempting to stay within those parameters?

Carlos Santana: There wasn’t a mindset to sound like anything specific, it was more, “hey, let’s see how this turns out.” There was no plotting or conniving or anything like that. We just played.

I have to say that I’m very grateful that my bandmates trusted me to sequence and organize the album in a certain way. I guess I’m the keeper of the flow. I’m the chef who says, “This is the salad and this is the main course and this is the dessert.”  I learned a lot from Bill Graham and Clive Davis how to present the music.

I’m very grateful to Gregg and Neal and everybody else that they trusted me to sequence it. I got to a certain place and asked for their help and they sequenced it and then we mixed our sequences together. So I took their suggestions and their opinions. So it’s a mutual collective collaboration.

Early in Santana’s career, can you pinpoint your big break that pushed you to the next level?

Carlos Santana: I’d say most definitely getting to play at Woodstock was a really big break for the band early in our career, definitely the Supernatural album and definitely opening for The Rolling Stones many many a time.

That’s all because of Bill Graham who would convince Mick Jagger (laughs), “Hey man, you gotta let Santana open up for you.” We were really grateful that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards allowed us to be an opening band for them.

I would say basically when Bill allowed us to develop at the Fillmore Auditorium was really important too. That’s where we started. I’d smoke a joint and I’d close my eyes and I’d be going for the solo and the I’d open my eyes and there would be Jerry Garcia in front of the stage along with Michael Bloomfield doing air guitar while I’m playing.

They’re cracking up and yelling “Go Carlos!” and I’m like, “Holy shit man, it’s Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield and they’re groovin’ on what I’m doin’!”

So that for me personally and for the rest of the band it’s what it is, but for me personally I was validated by Michael Bloomfield and Jerry Garcia and of course later on John McLaughlin. But it made me relax and not being nervous anymore. It made me realize, you gotta have something good otherwise they would walk away. (laughs) So it gives you clarity and confidence and assurance.

You brought up the Fillmore West in San Francisco which was a launching pad for the band. How did the band’s tenure playing shows at the Fillmore West push you creatively?

Carlos Santana: The Fillmore was our first laboratory. We learned to create different experiments with sounds and rhythms and songs and moods at the Fillmore West. We would open up for Procol Harum or Buddy Miles or Quicksilver (Messenger Service) or Janis Joplin and we took from everybody.

After a while I realized even Jimi Hendrix was listening to us. All of a sudden Jimi Hendrix has congas and timbales too. So now the laboratory is the House of Blues. We play a lot at the one in Las Vegas. I moved there about seven or eight years ago.

We have a permanent residence at the House of Blues, which we utilize as a laboratory and we try all kinds of Coltrane and African music and John Lee Hooker. We’ll try anything on the spot. It’s all about imagination and adventure.

That’s what keeps you with innocence and being young, by immersing yourself without fear into adventure. Don’t be worried or thinking about how someone else is gonna think about what you do; I don’t care.

I never care about what anyone else thinks, man. I’m gonna go for this and pretty soon my phone is gonna ring and it’s John Lee Hooker calling me or Pharoah Sanders or Miles. They’d call my house to find out what was going on, “Hey man, how ya doin’?”

I’m not talking about anything but this beautiful word…validation.  To be validated by Miles Davis or Jerry Garcia or Tito Puente or Eric Clapton; to be validated and celebrated by them made me feel like I was on the right path. Grow, blow and keep creating a path that a lot of other musicians are gonna arrive at having a daring-ness to know that it works.

River Dance with ska could work. But there’s something about a polka or River Dance with African/Jamaican music that makes it like, “Oh, that’s what Bob Marley is.”

All you see on TV is white people playing country and western music a lot. Country music is over the top but it’s not really even country ‘cause it’s not Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, you know. I don’t criticize. I try to bring a thing where it can be politically a win-win situation. Of the bands today that call themselves country and western music, if they’d listen to ska from Jamaica, and some of them have.

I’m hearing Kenny Chesney putting Bob Marley in his things now.  He’s integrating Bob Marley into his thing and I’m no different. We all need to integrate African music with River Dance. Don’t keep the thing so pure that it become boring and predictable. Mix it up. We already know that River Dance is beautiful like that however if you try connecting African music with flamenco music, dancers like Jose Greco or this cat that was dancing with Paco DeLucia with River Dance, “Dang!”

It’s all about mixing it all up in a good way. You’ve got peanut butter and you’ve got chocolate and then you go, you’ve got something better now.

Let’s talk about Santana as a studio act versus being a live act, which was a completely different animal. Touch upon how the band truly came alive on the concert stage.

Carlos Santana: We used to take a lot of acid. So that’s gonna immediately change your perception, your arrangements, your priorities.

I want to make it clear, look, I’m not promoting LSD or Ayahuasca or mescaline but I am saying Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Beatles during their Revolver sessions, you can hear when somebody took it and you can hear when somebody has never taken it.

When you’ve never taken it you sound like a square, you know. It’s like watching a movie on a small black and white screen compared to watching a movie with surround sound in color. It’s a whole other thing, especially nowadays if you learn not to do it under supervision and under the right circumstances it can be very healing to you from being depressed, from having a constant lack of self-worth, a victim of yourself.

Nobody’s gonna screw you more than you. So we were actually doing therapeutic music onstage like The Grateful Dead and we were like, “Wow!” It’s like the guy who walked across the Twin Towers on a cable. It’s all about balance. You trust that you’re already crazy and insane and you can’t get any more crazy or insane than you really are so it’s like you can come back the other way; it makes total sense.

However, the music allows you to say, like Jimi Hendrix, “Can you make my guitar go (imitates swishing sound) from left to right and make it sound like an ocean and zoom across the speakers.” So if you’re sitting there and listening to this, even if you’re straight and never taken any mid altering stuff, that gives you that feeling.

When you listen to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Cream, you know who took it because we start playing with the sounds. It’s not like a dead photograph that just stands still; it’s moving around. It’s alive and it’s breathing so that’s what happened with Santana. We experimented with sound and ourselves and we were able to understand Miles Davis and Coltrane and all that from first-hand experience.

Speaking of LSD, you once said, “You cannot take LSD and not find your voice.” How did the use of LSD open up your mind as a player?

Carlos Santana: Yeah, in the Bay Area there’s an ocean of guitars. Man, you have the Grateful Dead, you have Quicksilver (Messenger Service) and you have Jefferson Airplane and Steve Miller; you have all kinds of stuff, like an ocean of guitars. Then you have players like Peter Green and Mike Bloomfield so with all respect to them, I don’t want to sound like any of them. I love all of them but I don’t want to sound like them.

I wanted to sound like Otis Rush and I wanted to sound like Buddy Guy and I wanted to sound like Freddie and Albert and B.B. King, mostly like B.B. But after a while I got tired of locking myself in the closet and trying to sound like them. I couldn’t sound like them so after a while I realized, Stupid, you’re not supposed to sound like them, you’re supposed to sound like you.

You need to incorporate people like Django Reinhardt, Los Indios Tabajaras, Manos Deplata, Wes Montgomery, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan; make it all sound like that in one note.  I love Derek Trucks because he listened to Ali Akbar Khan a lot like I do. You’re not gonna find that voice until you’re in a place to distill yourself from all of them and become your fingerprint. That’s a beautiful word.

You distill grapes until you make champagne or wine but you have to distill it, let it distill all the way to the bottom with quietness. Let it marinate, man. So my sound is the sound of a lot of people; Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. It’s not just Carlos Santana; there’s a lot of people. You become who you know and I love all those people.

bill grahamYou mentioned Bill Graham earlier in this interview and he’s a key figure in the group’s history. He helped the band tremendously to make inroads on the music scene and was your trusted advisor for the rest of his life. Can you discuss the importance the late Bill Graham to Santana’s career?

Carlos Santana: Thank you for saying that. Bill Graham is definitely a person who opened the biggest door in my life, him and Clive Davis, Mr. Clive Davis. Woodstock was an incredible door and we wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Bill Graham.

He fought for us to be there and he took Michael Lang (key Woodstock organizer), “Look, I’ll help you with this event but you have to put Santana on the bill.” And he was like, “Santana? What’s that?” (laughs) And he said, “Well, you’ll see.” Our album hadn’t even come out yet and nobody knew us from Adam when we performed at Woodstock.

But it was Bill Graham who like a boxer trained us to play in different-sized venues to get ready for things like this. We’d play in a two thousand seater, we’d play in a 10,000 seater, a 30,000 seater and we’d play a 60,000 seater. Then we were playing 120,000 seaters, playing festivals in Dallas, Texas, Atlanta and Atlantic City.

So by the time we were at Woodstock we weren’t afraid of the crowd because Bill was the one who introduced us to all of this. We were opening for everyone. People like Creedence Clearwater, Steppenwolf, Sly Stone, The Who; we were opening for everybody.

So every time we opened for groups like this people would be like, “Dang, who is this? What is this?”

And we would take the crowd. I mean, they’d still be fans of Paul Butterfield or The Who but now we had their audience too. So Bill Graham is the one who said, “You need to come to my office” and I said, “Okay, what’s goin’ on?” And he said, “I need to talk to you about your first album. When you guys record your first album, first of all you need to know that you guys just jam; you just did these long ass jams, jams that are 12 minutes, 18 minutes and there’s not even a song in there.”

And I’m like, “What are you talkin’ about?” He goes, “Look, a song needs an intro, a verse, a chorus, a bridge, a chorus and an ending” and I said, “What?! What’s that?!” He goes, “See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. You guys don’t know anything about a damn song, you guys just jam!” he said, “I’m gonna give you a song that you can learn to put on your record” and we were all like, “Aww man…”

He said, “I’m gonna bring you this song by “Sonny” Henry. Willie Bobo did it and I want you to kick his ass with that song. And we were like, “What?!” And that song was Evil Ways. Bill was a rascal, that’s who I like to put it. It was something that he had arranged with Willie Bobo.  So we did “Evil Ways” and it became a big hit for us.

Of course, I was listening to everybody and Gregg would listen to Peter Green and that’s how we did Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va and Gabor Szabo. We were just like kids.

Like Tony Bennett says, “If you take from one person it’s called stealing but if you take from many it’s called research.” We took from everybody and we did a lot of research on (John) Coltrane, Little Walter, everybody, you know. But it was Bill Graham who opened our eyes to learn how to play a song.

(laughs)  We were like, “What’s that?!” He and Alberto Gianquinto who was the piano with James Cotton who also helped us how to produce a song.  They were right.

Our songs were like 18 minutes long, half an hour long. (laughs) And he went, “No, man, can you make it the longest at five minutes or seven minutes? But think of three minutes and a half.” And we were like, “Three minutes and a half? What’s that?” Here comes Clive Davis and he really brought it home, “You need a single.”

We were like, “What’s a single?” And he said, “You know, that thing that makes everybody want to buy your music and you’ll have it played on the radio.” And we were like, “Aw man, forget the radio.” We didn’t identify with the radio. For us it was like, “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”

It was kind of corny, you had artists like Fabian and whatever. We didn’t want to be corny like that. Next thing you know you’re gonna ask us to be on Dick Clark’s show American Bandstand. We don’t wanna be part of that like that ‘cause we were rebels. Street mutts. However, we did listen to Bill Graham and Clive Davis and they were right. There’s a way to infuse all of that energy and now with Smooth and Maria Maria and all of these others songs, you can do both, which is what the new album is.

The album has big jams. I just close my eyes and I hear Neal go at it and Gregg and everybody. I’m a fan of the band myself because there’s nothing like it. There were a few bands that tried to go there and they found their own identity whether Mahlo or Chicano. But I remember when we opened for Chicago they didn’t have that kind of direction and the next time I saw them they were doing the song Beginnings with congas and stuff.

Same thing with Janis Joplin.  A lot of people were going one way and as soon as they heard Santana, here comes  congas and timbales ‘cause it works; the Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil, it works or Can You Hear Me Knockin’ which sounds like Santana. So we were really really grateful that we made a mark and we’re still making a mark today. To me, The Doors were my favorite band. They will always be my favorite band.

Did you ever play on the same bill?

Carlos Santana: No. I wish we had. I saw them live. They were more theatrical than anything you could conjure. Later on you had theater rock with people like Alice Cooper and David Bowie. But The Doors were doing theater with just a silence between the songs. Jim Morrison had this thing beyond, anything Steven Tyler or Mick Jagger, with all respect to them, could ever get.

This guy was not trying so hard to be a rock star. He just oozed this thing and you were like, “Damn!” And they loved the things that I loved the most which is John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker. That’s what they were into. I was like, “Wow, this is a band!” You could play the long version of Light My Fire by The Doors right now on radio five times in one day and it would be a hit all over again. Any garage band right now, you put The Doors on, and don’t tell them who it is and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s great” because they just had that eternal sound of youth, more than anybody.

The band’s first three albums, Santana, Abraxas, and Santana III, catapulted the band into superstardom. How do you look back on the evolution of the band’s style with those first three album?

Carlos Santana: Well, I’ll give you a clue, We’re in a hotel and we’re opening show for everyone, like I’ve said. You got to Michael Carabello’s room and he’ll be listening to Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and you got to Gregg Rolie’s room and he’s listening to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

Then you go to somebody else’s room and they’re listening to Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto. You come to my room and I’m listening to Miles and Coltrane. So it was like being at university. Every room that you go, like a bee you’re gonna be pollinating and the next thing you know you’re onstage and all of that is gonna go onstage.

That’s what happened with Santana – you can hear our evolution on those first the albums. That’s exactly what that is. Some people only listen to one thing and they sound like that. They sound really good but that’s all they play. We don’t want to be a one trick pony and just play with the color yellow.

I want the whole rainbow all of the time. Especially when you muddy it all up and almost make mud connecting all the colors together. You either create an incredible color or it looks like mud. (laughs) But it goes back to psychedelic music. I’m waiting for psychedelic music to come back and if anybody’s not gonna bring it, I’ll do my best to bring it back again because we’re having way too many squares (laughs) musically.

It’s very boring, predictable and annoying. Cute and clever is really annoying. So I’m forward thinking and inviting the elements like The Chamber Brothers with Time Has Come Today or The Temptations with Psychedelic Shack; I’d like to invite the new bands not to necessarily be destructive up on your head but for goodness sake go to a desert or something and take your shoes off and feel the dirt between your toes and when you hit that note feel the connection with the earth like that.

Finally, you’re a huge Jimi Hendrix fan and you were fortunate enough to have attended a Hendrix recording session for the song, Room Full of Mirrors.  What’s the back story behind that?

Carlos Santana: Well, we arrived at this hotel in New York City on Fifth Avenue and Devon, this lady was waiting for me. She said, “What are you doing?” And said, “Well, we’ve just arrived and I’m gonna take a shower.” She said, “Man, why don’t you come with me?” And I said, “Where are you going?”  She said, “Let’s go to the studio, Jimi is recording,” I think it was at the Record Plant or the Hit Factory.

So I said to Devon, “Oh, if he’s recording he probably doesn’t want anybody there.” She said, “No, don’t be such a square. When Jimi records it’s like a party.” So I said, (says tentatively) “Okay…” So I get in the car with her and then as we’re traveling on Avenue of the Americas Jimi is in another cab going really fast and he’s with a blonde lady. So Jimi arrived first at the studio and then we arrived. So he comes over and opens the door of the cab and I’m like, Oh my God, it’s Jimi Hendrix opening the door of my cab!

First thing he says is, “Santana, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he says, “I like your choice of notes.” I’m like, “Oh, thank you.” That’s what he said, “I like your choice of notes that you select.” So we go inside and they’re getting ready to overdub a couple of different takes on the track Room Full of Mirrors. On the way into the studio next to the guitars and Marshall amplifiers, there was a buffet full of stuff. There was hash and cocaine and weed and everything there and he just went through it and I was like, “Dang! If I did a little bit of any of those things I’d be in a coma! “Dang, and he’s gonna play? I was like woah! This is a whole other level of something that I’m not accustomed to.” If I would even think of doing some of that, I wouldn’t be able to even tune my guitar.

Did he nail the take?

Carlos Santana: Well, he nailed it for the first eight bars and he as playing slide guitar. (starts singing Room Full of Mirrors) and then he went out and kept going out and kept going out and he went so out that it didn’t make sense any more with what he playing to the song. And I’m like, “Dang!” I think it was Eddie Kramer who looked at one of the bodyguards or one of the roadies and went, “man, go get him and separate him from the guitar and the amplifier because he’s gone.”

So it was like the movie, The Exorcist. They went out there and opened the door and it was like a 2001 movie. They separated him from his guitar and the amplifier and when he turned around his eyes were like cherry red. And he was foaming at the mouth. It was like watching someone have an epileptic attack. And I was frozen. I was like, “Woah!”

I went back to my room and felt, as they said back then, that was a very far out experience, I was like, “What the hell was that?” But then I learned you need to have discipline in moderation. I don’t wanna do that to go there. There’s gotta be another way to get there. Man…and I did, I found another way to go there because of Sonny Sharrock and Larry Young and Tony Williams and John McLaughlin.

There’s other ways to arrive there than over excess of non-discipline. I’ll always tell that story because the youngsters need to know you need discipline and to moderate yourself. With moderation, it could be essential to you but without it it’s gonna hurt you and it’s gonna short circuit you and abort your creativity and your mission. So I learned a lot from Jimi and Sly Stone; I learned, man. I needed the high but more than anything I needed to obey the discipline.

I look at myself like Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis; it’s a marathon and it’s a race and I wanna be able to be in it and show up and make sure my faculties are intact. If I have an IQ of 1, I want that sucker to be available to me when I need it. I don’t’ want to be incoherent and not able to play. I’m not built like that.

So the moral of the story is skip the buffet.

Carlos Santana: (uproarious laughter) Yeah, that’s right. (laughs) Skip the buffet and go straight to the amplifier.

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