Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Sounds of Taraab – Zanzibar, New York

The amazing debut album from Sounds of Taraab, New York’s own East African dance band. Taraab is a slinky, danceable style that varies regionally: as the band’s website explains, taraab in Mombasa emphasizes its tricky African rhythms, while in Dar Es Salaam its Indian and Bollywood influences come to the forefront. In Zanzibar, where it originated, more often than not it’s haunting, chromatically-charged Levantine dance music set to African beats. That particular style is Sounds of Taraab’s primary focus, although the ten songs on this album are a mix of various subgenres. Most of this is foot-tapping music, although much of the material here is very psychedelic, even hypnotic.

 

As in a lot of Arab dance music, many of the songs here begin with a taqsim or improvisation on the accordion or oud. Accordionist/bandleader Ismael Butera plays with astronishing power, intensity and speed: anyone who might think that the accordion is a cheesy instrument needs to hear this guy. But pretty much everyone in the band gets to solo, including violinist/flute player Michael Hess (who also plays with Butera in the exhilarating Metropolitan Klezmer) and superb oud player Haig Manoukian. Khartoum native and frontwoman Alsarah (who also has some beguiling free downloads of her own available) delivers the songs’ typically romantically-oriented Kiswahili lyrics with a soulfully warm, slightly coy, Billie Holiday-esque inflection. The band’s two percussionists, Tye Giraud and Nicole LeCorgne also cover the all-important role of backing vocals: in taraab, textures are everything.   

 

The cd kicks off with the gorgeous, improvisationally-driven instrumental Fashraf Salama, followed by Daka Kozi Manowe, where the Indian influence – especially in the vocal melody – becomes instantly apparent. Pulsing along on a catchy 1-3-5 pop hook, the next cut, Nie Zama Nie Sema reveals itself as a link in the same chain that eventually morphed into soul music here in this country. After that, the darkly sensual snakecharmer vibe returns on Mapenzi Matamu. Butera and Alsarah share vocals on the bouncy next number, Mahaba Wa Taka Nini. After a somewhat pensive solo intro by Manoukian, Ani Wana Damu launches into a plaintive groove that wouldn’t be out of place in the Oum Kaltsoum repertoire. After the stately Lala, Mpenzi Lala – a showcase for Giraud’s vocals – the album eventually closes with a call-and-response dance number, Unalo, whose lyrics constantly make reference to ganja. It’s possible that the word means something entirely different in Kiswahli. But that’s doubtful. Proof that psychedelia has been around a long, long time before rock ever existed. Fans of pretty much any vintage style of African music, from Egyptian pop to Algerian gnawa, not to mention Indian classical music,will find plenty to feast on here. Big up to Sounds of Taraab for bringing such fascinating, fun stuff out of the archives for the benefit of an American audience.

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June 30, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | Leave a comment

CD Review: Black Fortress of Opium

Truth in advertising. The Boston noir rockers take their name from an actual dark-age citadel situated atop a massive volcanic rock formation, surrounded by poppy fields. It’s hard to think of a better description for what they play. Led by a multi-instrumentalist who goes by Ajda the Turkish Queen, the group plays hypnotic, often mesmerizing songs that unwind with a darkly slinky sensuality, sometimes exploding in rage. Think Elysian Fields, Bee & Flower or Botanica at their blackest and bleakest, with a more ambient sensibility. Martin Bisi’s raw yet rich production blends layer upon layer of reverb guitar in with Ajda’s mandolin, banjo, wind instruments and “field recordings,” creating an irresistible sonic tar pit. The album seems to be something of a suite, many of the songs in the same key, hanging on the same chord or nearby for minutes at a clip as the storm rises, falls and rises again. The cd opens with the gothic-titled House of Edward Devotion, pretty much setting the stage for what’s to come with its eerie overtones, the melody only baring its fangs in the quietest moments. The cd continues in the same vein with the aptly titled Black Rope Burns. With its ferocious sheets of distorted slide guitar, the next cut, a seven-minute epic called Ari is the album’s high point, capped by an earth-shattering plummet into the abyss by the guitars toward the end of the song.

 

After the quiet, acoustic interlude Crack + Pool, Twelve Gross picks up the pace like Nina Nastasia in her most lushly orchestrated moments on The Blackened Air. Your Past kicks it up a notch with its alternately wistful and jarringly percussive noise-rock, like Siouxsie & the Banshees as covered by Live Skull. Model Café is a sad, sarcastic, minimalist lament leading into a fiery reprise of Crack + Pool, Ajda’s flute stark in relief against an impenetrable wall of guitar. The album winds up with the sultry, bluesy soul ballad From a Woman to a Man before reverting to the trance-inducing sound of the rest of the album with the ominous, nine-minute Dulcet TV. This is a sensationally good ipod album. And even if the band just plays the cd’s basic tracks onstage, they should be awesome live.

June 30, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | Leave a comment

CD Review: Rachid Taha – Rock El Casbah, The Best of

This album won the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in their Middle East/North Africa category, something of a surprise considering that all but one of the tracks here are old, previously released material, much of it iconic in the Arab world. An analogy would be the Beatles winning a Grammy for one of the anthologies. What most likely prompted the award, presented to Taha by Joe Strummer’s widow, was the legendary Franco-Algerian rocker’s cover of the Clash’s Rock the Casbah (with new Arabic lyrics that reputedly far surpass Strummer’s uncharacteristically inarticulate rail against third world dictators). Collecting the greatest work by the eminence grise of the rai-rock movement of the 80s and 90s would be a difficult task under any circumstances, further complicated by licensing issues. Sadly, there’s nothing here by Taha’s groundbreaking Arab punk band Carte de Sejour (Green Card), nor any tracks from his raucous, almost heavy metal live album. Nonetheless, this is far more interesting than most greatest-hits packages: in fact, it’s an excellent introduction to one of the Arabic-speaking world’s most popular and influential artists, packed with many of his most important songs, most of them set to Levantine dance melodies. The frequent whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of the drum machine and veteran British rock instrumentalist Steve Hillage’s slick production may be offputting to purists, but the hypnotic beauty of the melodies inevitably shines through (keep in mind that virtually everything here was written to rock the casbah in the purest sense of the phrase).

 

Predictably, the collection kicks off with his big crossover smash Ya Rayyeh (Let’s Party), the classic 1993 remake of the Dahmane el Harrachi Algerian exile anthem. Nokta (Point) builds intoxicatingly over an equally haunting Levantine vamp. Voila Viola (which translates here as Here We Go Again), dripping with punk sarcasm, is a signature anti-racist, pro-immigrant number set to an Egyptian pop tune.  Habina (We Love) is an uncharacteristically happy, upbeat cover of a composition by Farid El Atrache, the great Lebanese oud player, composer and film actor. Kelma (Thoughts) plays over a loop of the intro from the Smiths’ How Soon Is Now. The collection also includes a remake of Taha’s hilariously punked-out cover of Charles Trenet’s jingoiostic anthem Douce France (which made waves when it was banned from French radio in the 80s), as well as an Arab dance-rock remake of Misirlou (a Greek melody immortalized by Lebanese-American rocker Dick Dale AKA Richard Mansour, whose Mediterranean origins Taha picked up on instantly when he first heard it).

 

Now fifty years old, having just published an autobiography, Taha still commands a rabid following around the world and puts on a frequently riveting stage show. Despite its limitations, this album is worth owning if only for the fact that many of the songs here have until now only been available in the US as dubious-quality bootlegs. Fans with sufficient dedication and stamina to subject themselves to the frustrations of trying to enter Central Park Summerstage and then standing in the heat through two other bands (frequently hypnotic noiserockers Apollo Heights and the even more mesmerizing Cambodian psychedelic revivalists Dengue Fever) ought to be able to see Taha play there on July 5 at around 5 PM. Early arrival highly advised, i.e. 2:30 PM at the latest. 

June 30, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | Leave a comment

Purple K’nif at Lakeside Lounge, NYC 6/27/08

“Do you guys surf?” some guy in the audience asked. One of the veteran surf rock quartet’s two guitarists onstage laughed out loud.

 

“We’re from Ohio!”

 

None of the group were sporting colorful beachwear or drinking anything with an umbrella in it, proof that all you really need is the tunes and damn, these guys had tunes, over an hour’s worth, a long set. Especially at Lakeside where bands are given a strict midnight curfew so as not to disturb the neighbors. If surf music is your thing, or if just plain old good rock is your thing, you ought to see this band. Their set wasn’t especially loud, their original instrumentals don’t have a lot in the way of drama or big crescendos and they don’t ham it up onstage like a lot of surf bands do (a very good thing, actually). What they get over on is subtlety. Their mostly upbeat, major-key songs tend to swing, sway and even meander rather than punch you like a fifty foot wave. Occasionally, this gets pretty psychedelic. It’s hard to think of a more original surf band than Purple K’nif (the name is a reference to both an obscure Cleveland TV show host and a Cramps bootleg).

 

They did an amusing number that twisted sections of Besame Mucho Twist and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue together like a black-and-white cruller, a little strange but undeniably sweet. Launching into the next song, their Fender player told the crowd that “This is the saddest surf song ever written,” and it wasn’t, although the fairly long, contemplative number might be the slowest. They followed that with a more upbeat song driven by the drummer’s tribal rhythm, and then another original with a somewhat minimalist, Shadows feel. They also played a tune that their Gibson player sardonically called “The Cliché Song,” which might have been true in the sense that it nicked a whole bunch of licks from classic surf songs, but the way the band strung them together was clever in the same way as XTC’s tongue-in-cheek ripoff of 60s psychedelia on their Dukes of Stratosphear albums.

 

At the end of the set, they played their big youtube hit the Beer Theme, a catchy, comfortably buzzed tune and closed with a good cover of Bumblebee Rock, which like a lot of surf classics takes a classical melody (Flight of the Bumblebee) and rocks it out. The band swings through New York a few times a year, playing mostly here and at Otto’s on Unsteady Freddy’s surf nights the first Saturday of the month.

June 28, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | 1 Comment

Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 6/26/08

Further proof that sometimes the best things happen by accident. Last night three of the Lucid Culture crew decided to reward themselves for running all over town these last few weeks, relaxing with some drinks while taking in a show by Matt Munisteri and Will Holshouser’s excellent trio Musette Explosion at Barbes. There were no plans to review the show, since they’ve already been featured here before: this was strictly for pleasure. But they weren’t playing. In their place were Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar, who’ve been on the shortlist for a review here for a long time, since catching their intriguing sound wafting from inside a shishi shisha bar in the East Village one cold winter morning what seems like eons ago. They’re the funkiest gypsy band you’ll ever see, a blazing, horn-driven unit who share several members with the equally bracing, perhaps even more exhilarating Ansambl Mastika. “New York’s own Balkan wedding band,” as they call themselves blasted through two wild sets of intense, improvisational revelry. This was a going-away party of sorts for their longtime singer Jodi Hewat, and while it was nice to be able to see her sing what might have been a final show with this crew, they’re perfectly good as an instrumental unit.

 

They opened with a long, psychedelic vamp which, although basically just a warmup, gave their trumpeter, reed player and accordionist the chance to cut loose with some evil solos. Their trumpeter soared and wailed all night, often going off on the same kind of scary, microtonal trills that Greg Squared (also of Ansambl Mastika), doubling on sax and clarinet, uses as a sort of signature device. Accordionist Matthew Fass, by contrast, is an especially terse player and perhaps the most adept of anyone in the band at this style of music, with its tricky time signatures and recurrent motifs that return when least expected. Bassist Reuben Radding (another Ansambl Mastika member) built a fat groove using a lot of judiciously placed chords and the occasional slide, while drummer Timothy Quigley (who seems to have a nightly residency at this place, with his weekly gig with Chicha Libre and all) put on a clinic in good fun and good taste. He didn’t waste a beat all night, and that’s all the more impressive since this stuff is all about the beat. 

 

Hewat added vocals to some of the numbers including a boisterously rueful one that she said was a mother’s lament about being broke with children. On one of the instrumentals, a somewhat stately, funereal tune, Quigley came out from behind the kit to play a bass drum slung around his neck. The night’s best stuff came toward the end of the band’s first set, including an instrumental that stole a page from the Hazmat Modine songbook, set to a reggae beat.

 

The show’s only drawback was the silly effects pedal that the guitarist was using. He’s an excellent player and also a great listener, often doubling either the sax line or bassline and playing expertly off the rest of the crew. But the box he was using was running his signal through a series of cheesy synthesizer patches, making him sound as if he was playing a dollar-store imitation Casio made somewhere in Fujian Province. You can bring acoustic instruments into fusion jazz and they work fine, but you can’t bring electronics (other than electric guitar and bass) into a band with a rustic, organic sound like this group has. Time for a new box, dude. Or maybe just lose it altogether and go straight through your amp.

June 27, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | Leave a comment

CD Review: Alex Cuba – Agua de Pozo

Feel-good story: guitarist/songwriter has to leave his native Cuba for Canada, where he makes it big (thanks in no small part to the CBC, no doubt: those Canadians really support their own!). Like a younger, more minimalist, carefree Juan-Carlos Formell, Cuba (real name: Alexis Puentes) draws on oldschool Cuban influences while adding his own, in this case 70s American black pop along with several others from around the Caribbean. The result is a sound that is uniquely his own. As with his music, his lyrics are terse: most of these songs are upbeat yet contemplative, driven by catchy choruses (lyrics in Spanish).

 

The opening track Amor Infinito is a brief excursion into tropicalia, like a Spanish language version of something Alice Lee might write. The vibe continues with the bouncy De Camino. The album’s strongest track, Lamento is a strikingly dark rock en Espanol number that wouldn’t be out of place on a Jaguares album. The title track, built on a classic oldschool two-chord salsa vamp, works perfectly with the electric guitar solos that Cuba substitutes for what would ordinarily be horn breaks. Then he goes ska, with more blazing electric guitar on the next track, Tu Boca lo Quita. Of the other tracks, Penita en la Cara is straight-up 70s disco; Vampiro channels Stevie Wonder at his early 70s psychedelic peak. There’s no reason why this album shouldn’t be all over Latin hit radio (who set the bar far higher than their Anglo counterparts), and Cuba has picked up a big following with the English-speaking world music crowd. Like the well water the album takes its title from, this is a cool, refreshing and very auspicious debut.

June 27, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | Leave a comment

Custard Wally at Don Pedro’s, Brooklyn NY 6/25/08

Comedic Brooklyn punk band Custard Wally blasted through an absolutely kick-ass fifty-minute set mixing a lot of new material in with the band’s older, frequently scabrously funny, sexually explicit three-minute songs. It was like being transported back to a CBGB of the mind circa 1979, the band sounding much like a cross between the UK Subs and Motorhead. Frontman Chris Giunta plays Gibson SG guitars through a huge Peavy combo that gets a wickedly overtone-laden, brimstone sound so loud that the vocals were pretty much indecipherable all night – and the PA here is pretty powerful. But no matter: Giunta is a a consummate showman. Between songs, he addressed the audience in the trademark phony British accent he uses onstage: “This a song about…EATING PUSSY!!!” And so forth: this is a band that doesn’t itself seriously at all. But the music is another matter. They opened one of the songs with a heavy metal version of the hook from Anitra’s Dance, by Grieg. Otherwise, there was a lot of riffage, a little jangle (on the completely over-the-top, snide All the Sex in the World, from their previous album Estrogennia Dementia) and plenty of straight-up three chord punk rock, including a stomping version of their vicious anti-trendoid rant Pretty Little Ponytail Boy. Giunta’s an excellent guitarist whose occasional flashy displays of technique and skill are almost invariably satirical, and tonight proved no exception as he tossed off several lickety-split, faux-emotional Jimmy Page style hammer-ons when it came time for a solo.

 

Then he gave one to the bassist, and then the drummer, whose face immediately took on an expression that pretty much said “how am I going to pull this off without making a complete asshole of myself.” So he pounded his way around the kit a couple of times and then brought it down to just the tom-tom, sparing the audience considerable pain and suffering as high frequencies ping-ponged off the untreated cinderblock walls. Meanwhile, Giunta switched guitars, took his sweet time tuning up, drank half a beer and finally glanced over at his bandmate with a sadistic grin as if to say, “Fuck these people.” Then they finally launched back into the song. If that’s not punk rock, nothing is.

 

They closed the set with their new single I’m in Love Wif Shithead, leading the crowd in a singalong of “shithead, shithead, shithead,” ending with the melody to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. And it was just like CBGB, 1979: back in those days, everybody wanted to sound like Aerosmith. Punk rock was banished to a dumpy country bar in a shitty neighborhood on upper Bowery, and pretty much the only people who went there were from the other bands who played there. Seems that what upper Bowery was to the late 70s, Bushwick is to the late zeros, except that there aren’t nearly as many bums.

 

Custard Wally’s t-shirts are also a kick: they’re designed as a tour shirt with the band logo on the front and a list of 2005 tourdates going down the back. Only these dates are the pretty much monthly gigs they did at the Continental along with a WFMU appearance and a single show at the dreaded Pussycat Lounge. You can get one (and a copy of their new cd Call Me Walt) at their cd release show here on August 16 at 9.

June 26, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | Leave a comment

Evan Schlansky at Sidewalk, NYC 6/25/08

Evan Schlansky writes great rock songs. He may play acoustic guitar, sitting on a stool with a harmonica slung around his neck, but he definitely rocks. If you hate singer-songwriters, Schlansky is right up your alley. He’s the poster guy for learning how to play guitar: last night at Sidewalk, he didn’t take any long solos, in fact, not a single solo throughout his too-short 40-minute set. But it was clear from the start that this is a guy who knows his blues, knows his 60s music and uses the whole fretboard with a casual effortlessness that typifies his songwriting. For Schlansky, Dylan is the obvious stepping-off point. But – like another great NYC songwriter, Marcellus Hall – it’s the playful, freewheeling young Dylan that Schlansky most resembles. Until he opens his mouth, that is. Schlansky has just a tinge of a sardonic twang in his voice, but it’s there for effect, not affectation.

 

This show was something of a departure, mostly quieter, darker material as opposed to the generally upbeat, bluesy, deviously funny songs that make up most of Schlansky’s catalog. This time out, he played a lot of downbeat, pensive, often outright dark material, the high point being a somewhat eerie minor-key number chronicling the collapse of a relationship: “If this was a job, we’d both be fired…I ain’t no mechanic, but this is barely a car.”

 

Another of the set’s high points was a long, meandering number that he said he wrote in fifteen minutes, an accident of leaving the recorder running while rehearsing. It started out on a wryly amusing note about trying to get ready for a show but being too stoned to remember lyrics, and then went totally stream-of-consciousness. Eventually, he referenced Randy Newman, “before he started working for that mouse.” Schlansky continued that if anyone found that particular line funny, they should immortalize it. So: here it is.

 

He also played a brisk one about driving while high on crack (which does not appear to be something he has any personal experience of) before closing, counterintuitively, with another fairly long, quiet lament. That this guy’s slow stuff gets over as well as it does says something about how good his writing is: it’s hard to think of someone as good who’s as far under the radar as Schlansky. Bands in need of good hitworthy material would be well advised to check him out.

June 26, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | Leave a comment

CD Review: Lazy Lions – Keep Your Love Away

In an auspicious debut, the somewhat backward-looking, futuristically inclined New York second-wave new wave quartet go three for four and even manage to knock a couple out of the park. Like a tougher, more focused yet more pop-oriented Kaiser Chiefs, Lazy Lions reach back to the classics, but in their case this means Elvis Costello and Split Enz rather than Wire and Blur. Frontman Jim Allen goes for a sort of vintage Graham Parker white soul delivery and pretty much nails it. Robert Sorkin’s incisive, tasteful guitar licks are occasionally augmented by trebly organ, enhancing the early 80s feel, and brilliant bassist Anne-Marie Stehn (ex-Maul Girls, Skinny Ruth and Antigone Rising) adds her signature pulse and melodicism. Lyrically, most of these song pack a punch: clever wordplay with double entendres and literary references are all over the place.

 

The title track is a nice attempt that aside from the chorus doesn’t really come together. But the next cut, Help Is Not Exactly on the Way is a smash, a snidely sarcastic snapshot from the brink of the apocalypse, pounding along on a killer janglerock melody. Flavored with some deliciously watery lead guitar, You Me Baudelaire is a triumphantly buoyant midtempo ballad for romantically-inclined nonconformists. The ep winds up with the riff-rocking Magellan in Reverse, a wry chronicle of missteps that ends on a surprisingly effective, dark note. Throughout the album, the playing is smart, tuneful and terse: no wasted notes anywhere. Elvis Costello would be proud. If the album is any indication they ought to be excellent live. Lazy Lions play Crash Mansion at 7:30 PM on July 2.

 

 

 

 

June 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | 1 Comment

Remembering George Carlin

Anonymous repost from the absolutely irreplaceable if frequently infuriating Lefsetz Letter:

I had just gotten in at my place of employment at the time which was the afternoon / night shift at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, I was 22 and the year was 1972, while walking over to my section of the store, my section was the comedy section… meaning I had to take records from the under stock and make sure that they were represented in the display up on top, I look and I see one Mr. George Carlin looking through my section. Now George was at the top of his game at the time, he and his manager had just started their own record company called “Little David Records” for which the only other artist on the label at the time was a little known jazz / folk singer named Kenny Rankin….. sorry to say but at that time he wasn’t my cup of tea but still I had received a promo of his album and gave it a listen which said a lot because I used to take albums I had no use for directly over to Aaron’s Records, for those of you who don’t know Aaron’s Records was a place on Melrose Ave. here in Los Angeles where you could take your used and new albums and turn them into $$$$$$…. something that was in short supply in those days. Tower Records was never known for paying their employees a lot of money, I think they figured with all the free records, tee shirts, concert and let’s not forget the store groupies… you were doing pretty well. I didn’t complain I had no bills to pay except for rent.

 

OK back to George, so I walked up to him and I tell George how I’ve been listening to his new LP “Class Clown” religiously and playing it in the store until all of the other employees were sick of it, I know how many times can you listen to the same joke over and over again. Sorry but I loved it and for me it was a learning experience. I asked George joking “would you please show me how you do your Ed Sullivan” and much to my surprise he showed me by saying. “By now you know, by now you know,  just before the aero photography picture of Kate Smith, Topo Gigio the little faggot mouse will be out here to do his thing”. Even thought I’d heard it before on record I laugh so hard that I cried.

 

So we talked for a while. Lets face it George always was one of us…. just peopl,e none of that movie star crap for him… and that’s what we all loved him for.

 

He had a boxed set (stay with me now, this is where the story gets good) of classical LP’s under his arm and asked me “do you have a LP resealer in the back room of the store?”…. we were told by Tower management never to mention the LP resealer, it was Tower’s dirty little secret and you could get fired for that on the spot, so without so much as thinking twice I said “yeah we have one.”  He said to me that he was flying to New York tonight and that tomorrow was his friend’s birthday and wouldn’t it be funny if when his friend opened up the LP he found some drugs inside it instead of LP’s. I said “ABSOLUTELY I WOULD”, so we proceeded to the back room of Tower Records where we heated up the shrink wrap machine and opened up the box set of LP’s that he had and took the albums out of the box and at that point I was thinking maybe he had a little pot to put inside, but George was the big time and there it was…. WOW … George reaches into his pants and pulls out the biggest bag of cocaine I had ever seen in my life… so we proceeded to put the bag of coke into the box set and as I thought … “sorry George” it wouldn’t fit, no problem he said and he opens up the baggy and puts a big pile of coke on the record sleeve, puts the bag back into the box set and it still wouldn’t fit, so George take some more out and we finally get the bag to fit, we send it through the resealer and shrink wrapper until the LP looked just like new. George thanked me very much and I inquired “what about that pile of coke sitting there” he said “no problem, that’s for you for your services” You’ve got to be joking….”no, that’s for you” :):):):) I was used to buying small amounts and never had that much for personal use ever…I said  “Thanks George !!!!!!”  I clean up everything in the back room and walk him out to the front entrance shook his hand and thanked him for everything…. for me a banner day at Tower.

 

Needless to say I was employee of the month and had this great story to tell all.

 

June 25, 2008 Posted by | Culture | 1 Comment