Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Delicious Middle Eastern Guitar from Michel Sajrawy

Palestinian guitarist Michel Sajrawy ‘s latest album Arabop transcends category. What it most closely resembles is the current wave of electric gypsy music: fans of bands like the NY Gypsy All-Stars will love this stuff. Here he’s joined by a crew of Israeli musicians from his Nazareth hometown, teaming up for a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps as well as a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays with an envelope effect popular with guitarists east of the Danube that fills out his precise, staccato lines to the point where sometimes it sounds like he’s playing an electric piano or synth. What’s most impressive is that often he sounds like he’s playing a fretless guitar even though he’s simply bending strings on a standard-issue Strat. The result is a new hybrid musical language incorporating both traditional Egyptian modes and western tonalities, much in the same vein as David Fiuczynski here in the US and Salim Ghazi Saeedi in Iran.

The opening track kicks off with a slinky guitar vamp followed by a haunted, pleading soprano sax solo by Maali Klar, who shares a fondness for microtones and whose contributions to this album are some of its most riveting moments. Alto saxophonist Amiram Granot plays casually contrasting chromatics over the pulse of Stas Zilberman’s drums and Wisam Arram’s percussion. As he does on several tracks here, Sajrawy also plays electric bass on this one; Valeri Lipets holds down the low end on the others.

1 Count Before 40 begins with a pensive oud taqsim by Samir Makhoul, builds to a stately sway, Sajrawy navigating the space judiciously with a bit of a Greek folk feel: they work the dynamics up and down to a pinpoint guitar solo out. The title track, structured as sort of a musical palindrome,  blends biting Black Sea riffage, a long and rather chilling microtonal bop guitar solo and more of that delicious, ney-like microtonal soprano sax from Klar.

The cospiratorial, whispery Syncretic Beliefs is basically a microtonal tone poem, Sarajway playing casually but purposefully over a djeridoo-like drone. Batumi works a trickily rhythmic groove, Sajrawy expertly shifting it further from the Middle East into otherworldly microtones and then spiraling bop, Klar taking it deep into the shadows in the wake of Sajrawy’s long solo. The album’s best track is the brooding, dirgelike, practically ten-minute epic Hal Asmar Ellon, swaying with a haunting understatement, Granot’s alto summoning the spirits from the nether regions this time: it sounds like an electric version of a Trio Joubran piece.

Sajrawy mimics an oud line on the watery intro to Ya Lel, which eventually picks up with a funky edge before returning to the brooding initial theme. Likewise, Invention is a launching pad for Sajrawy’s nimble cross-genre exploration, moving once again from the desert to bop-land. At the end of the album, Sajrawy takes the popular Egyptian tune Longa Farah Faza and turns it into a sizzling organ shuffle – it’s the only place on the album where he shows off his supersonic speed and he makes the absolute most of it. Like the rest of this album, it’s a feast of blissfully edgy chromatic guitar.

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January 5, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wild Intense Middle Eastern Grooves from Shusmo

Shusmo’s new cd Mumtastic is pure adrenaline – it’s one of the most exhilarating albums of recent years. Frontman Tareq Abboushi plays long, relentlessly intense, serpentine solos on his buzuq (the Palestinian bouzouki); it’s interesting to hear tenor saxophonist and zurna flutist Lefteris Bournias – a Coltrane/Papasov-class powerhouse- as a sideman rather than centerstage, firing off endless volleys of chromatics like he usually does. There are other bands who sound a little like Shusmo (Arabic for “whatchamacallit”) – the NY Gypsy All-Stars, and psychedelic Greek rockers Annabouboula come to mind – but this group’s sound is different. Abboushi’s concept is to bring a purist, classical sense of melody to Middle Eastern dance music, while bringing danceable rhythms to classical melodies. Some of this is  sort of punk Middle Eastern classical music, some of it is closer to acoustic surf music. Either way, it’s pretty amazing.

The opening cut is the biggest stunner here, a Turkish tune which if you’re sitting down will get you dancing in your seat. It kicks off with a wickedly ominous, catchy hook on Abboushi’s buzuq, with the same kind of ringing resonance as a twelve-string guitar. Bournias’ zurna flutters against the beat, or shadows Abboushi, whose first solo becomes a scorching flurry of doublestops and tremolo-picking. The second track, The Time It Takes sounds like a stately baroque arrangement of an old English folk tune until the chromatics come in, and then the drums, and then they’re off, with a nonchalantly hard-hitting sax solo. Georgina +2 pulses along on a tricky Kurdish rhythm, Dave Phillips’ bass and Zafer Tawil’s percussion trading off and playing against the buzuq, which eventually takes a deliciously long crescendo up. True to its title, Traveling is a cinematic epic, Abboushi’s expansive narrative balanced by Bournias’ bracing, sometimes anguished, nebulously insistent passages.

Samba for Maha, another cinematic one, doesn’t stay samba for very long – it’s something of a neighborhood piece, with dogs barking, surfy drum breaks and moody sax. A trickily rhythmic showcase for Tawil along with drummer Hector Morales, Rasty George segues into the first of a handful of vignettes that slowly fades out. The funky Batayak has a swaying rai-rock vibe and a thicket of lighting tremolo-picking from Abboushi, followed by a brief joujouka interlude with the zurna wailing mournfully. The centerpiece of the album is The Wall, a long, pensively surreal journey that’s the closest thing to jazz here, with an aptly sensitive guest spot by quartertone trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. It’s meant to illustrate the effect of the wall erected in Israeli by anti-Palestinian extremists, to further perpetuate the apartheid that exists there – and yet, some are undeterred by it, others actually managing to enjoy what it leaves in its wake (including the wreckage of Palestinian homes, as much of a playground as you’ll find nearby). With a quiet ache, it reaches for resolution but never finds it.

The album winds up with Pickles, moving once again from European baroque stateliness to a biting Middle Eastern dance and then back again, and the clapalong wedding dance Dal’Ona – the only vocal number here – Bournias finally cutting loose with his most acidically intense solo of the entire session. Shusmo play Joe’s Pub on June 23 at 9:30 PM – if this is your kind of thing, and you’re in town, you’d be crazy to miss them. They’re also at Cornelia St. Cafe at 8:30 on July 7.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Ansambl Mastika at Shrine, NYC 11/21/09

Ansambl Mastika call themselves the “new Balkan uproar.” What they do is definitely new and different, they are indelibly Balkan (although they range a lot further, usually toward the east) and what they play could understatedly be called an uproar. They’re one of New York’s best bands in any style of music, and they reaffirmed that uptown on Saturday night.

Since the Europeans didn’t invent jazz, they took to fusion a lot more readily than Americans did, and unfortunately some of fusion’s most annoying attributes – cheesy settings, garish solos and a complete lack of communication between musicians – still haunt a lot of music coming out of the former Eastern Bloc. Ansambl Mastika are an antidote to that. While they use electric guitar and bass along with rhythms that veer from gypsy to jazz to rock, the chemistry between the band members was characteristically playful and gripping. Nobody stepped on anybody, there was all kinds of interplay and it was obvious that this crew has a blast playing together. Which they should. Bandleader/reedman Greg Squared (who also plays in seemingly half the good Balkan-inflected bands in town, notably Raya Brass Band) was in his usual high-intensity mode, firing off blistering clusters of chromatics on both clarinet and sax. Bassist Ruben Radding (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar and several jazz projects) felt the room, holding down a fat groove with an understatement that made his infrequent chords and slides all the more intense. This time out the group were in a particularly Greek/Macedonian mood, their leader taking a vocal on a handful of numbers.

They opened as a lot of gypsy bands do with what was basically a one-chord jam that gave their trumpeter a chance to cut loose with an ominous, chromatically-charged abandon. Accordion took centerstage on the next number as its introductory Greek waltz took a bitter, Middle Eastern-infused riff down to the lower registers, clarinet fueling the fire. The next looked like it was going to go totally fusion a la what the NY Gypsy All-Stars fall prey to sometimes, but it didn’t when the guitar and accordion turned it over to the horns, and then the guitar kicked in using almost a Fender Rhodes tone. After flailing around with some tricky time changes the band brought it back with a snarling, 4/4 stomp. The other tunes included a stripped-down, rustic, Macedonian-flavored number with the drummer on a standup bass drum and a wildly slinky, chromatic ride to the depths of the Adriatic on the wings of a long, triumphant trumpet solo where the guitar took over and then proceeded to make dark, unexpected janglerock out of it. They wrapped up the set with another Greek tune with a Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood feel on the chorus, incisively bluesy guitar teleporting to the Sahara in a split second. And then it was over. If you wish you’d been at  this one, Ansambl Mastika play Drom at 9 on Dec 11 on an excellent doublebill with Ethiopian jazz group the Debo Band.

November 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Turkish Woodstock

As concerts in New York go, this was something of a landmark, representing both the vanguard and the old guard of cutting-edge Turkish music, something that according to people involved with the project would have been far less likely to have taken place on Turkish soil. Istanbulive AKA the Turkish Woodstock was a quick sellout (or the equivalent – the Summerstage arena was filled to capacity minutes after the opening act, the NY Gypsy All-Stars took the stage). This time around, acclaimed Turkish clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici stood in for the mostly instrumental group’s usual reed man Ismail Lumanovski, taking the music in a surprisingly but effectively murky, pensive direction. In Turkey, the clarinet carries the same connotation as the sax does here, frequently the instrument of choice for bandleaders and for party music in general. Where Lumanovski is a ferociously intense player, someone who typically goes straight for the jugular, Senlendirici took a characteristically more spacious and contemplative approach, an apt fit for several of the ballads in the set. With a rhythm section including electronic keyboards along with guitar and kanun, they alternated between tricky, rousing dances and quieter fare, some simply instrumental versions of Turkish pop hits which became mass karaoke for the high-spirited audience. One of them sounded like the old Burt Bacharach standard Never Gonna Fall in Love Again set to a more complex rhythm. Their best number featured a guest chanteuse doing a wistful, homesick Armenian folk song backed by just keys and clarinet.

The unannounced Brooklyn Funk Essentials followed with a brief, entertaining mini-set with Senlendirici out front (their 1998 album with him is a major moment in American/Middle Eastern fusion), working a dark reggaeish vibe on the first tune, following with a straight-up funk number that lept doublespeed into ska. They then did a funny ska version of the Mozart Rondo a la Turk, and were out of there – a quick rehearsal for their show later at City Winery maybe?

Painted on Water maintained the cutting-edge vibe, delivering the afternoon’s most electrifying moments. Frontwoman Sertab Erener is a star in her home country, and this mostly English-language project – her vocals and accent are flawless – ought to expand her audience exponentially. Kicking off the set with a long, passionate, intense vocalese intro, it was clear that she had come to conquer. Like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones, she showed off a forceful, defiant wail that on the next-to-last song of the set she unleashed with unrestrained fury, a stunning crescendo that seemed to defy the laws of physics. That such a relatively small, lithe frame could cut loose such a powerful blast of sound was a wonder to behold. Then she did it again.

They built up to that with an intriguingly cross-pollinated blend of tastefully jazzy, guitar-driven, blues and Turkish-inflected rock songs. Guitarist Demir Demirkan came across as something of a warmer Andy Summers, casually tossing off artfully precise flourishes in a multitude of styles, sticking with a clean, trebly tone. The anthemic 1000 Faced Man, from the group’s brand-new debut cd packed a funereal, Doorsy wallop, courtesy of some totally Manzarek-esque organ from the keyboardist. On the next number Demirkan matched Erener note for note, his lines thick with vibrato and apprehension, as she went off with more vocalese. The catchy, swaying, syncopated Shut up and Dance brought back the psychedelic vibe with another long, haunting organ solo. On one of the tables in the seating area to the right of the stage, a little girl methodically built an impressive pyramid out of the plastic wine goblets they were using back there, which stood resolute until blown over by a gust of wind. It made a good visual counterpart to the steadfastly wary, purist intensity of Demirkan’s playing.

Legendary Turkish rockers Mazhar Fuat Ozkan turned the vibe back to haunting, at least for awhile. Because of their three-part harmonies, the comparison they always get is CSNY and that’s completely wrong because they’re far darker – their closest western counterpart would probably be early, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, or perhaps Barclay James Harvest before they turned into the poor man’s Moody Blues, with more than a few echoes of Pink Floyd. Their mostly slow-to-midtempo anthems mixed lush, sometimes elegaic layers of guitar over stately descending progressions that owe more to western classical music than to either rock or traditional Turkish melodies, and these were potently effective. As with many of their contemporaries who date back to the early 70s, their attempts to incorporate slicker, funkier, more commercial sounds were less successful (artistically, at least, though the crowd loved them), taking on a derivative feel that the lead player’s metalish guitar licks only aggravated. As Kerouac said, first thought, best thought – stick to what you do best and you can’t go wrong.

June 28, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Painted on Water

Painted on Water is the innovative collaboration of two of the most pioneering stars in Turkish music, chanteuse Sertab Erener and guitarist/composer Demir Demirkan. A mix of traditional Anatolian melodies, American jazz, rock and funk, their brand-new self-titled album just came out this month. Lucid Culture had a few questions for the duo in advance of their live show at the “Turkish Woodstock” at Central Park Summerstage at 3 PM this coming Saturday, June 27:

 

LC: Whose idea was Painted on Water? 

 

Demir: We came up with the idea of creating a project based on Anatolian musical elements that we can present to a non-Anatolian audience, together with Sertab. We wanted to bring out the large spectrum of musical elements of Anatolian music to the world stage so that it wouldn’t be too foreign but still unique to a wider audience. And we wanted our subject matter to be based on some of the principles of Anatolian and Eastern wisdom like sufism and taoism. Impermanence being one of them actually was the name root of the band. “Painted On Water” is the perfect metaphor for impermanence. The lyrics: “You and me is a long lost story painted on water…” reminds that our lives are colorful paint-drops and images which will be lost and forgotten in time. This is a rather positive point of view – no matter how impermanent our lives are, we still have to paint or picture on this canvas of life with attention and awareness.

 

LC: Who writes what? Sertab, are you the lyricist and Demir, you’re the composer, or do you mix and match?

 

Sertab: Demir wrote the lyrics to half of the songs and the rest were written by Phil Galdston.

 

Demir: I did the arrangements and harmonizing in the songs. In fact, there is no vertical harmony in Anatolian music, it’s a different system. I had to adapt it to a western system and build it harmonically first. The album was co-produced by Jay Newland, and he also mixed some of the songs. Some other material was recorded and mixed by Michael Zimmerling.

 

LC: Many of these songs are updates of Turkish folksongs – are these well known in your home country or have you uncovered some great obscurities? 

 

Demir:  Aegean Bride, the instrumental is actually an instrumental folk theme that I don’t think many people know about. We dug into the archives of a collector from Istanbul. We listened to more than a thousand recordings, some being so seriously old that you can hardly catch the melody. Some songs contain the whole melodies of the folk songs, some partial, and some I’ve written completely.

 

Sertab:  We had to play around with some of the melodies to adapt them into English language. Every language has its own musicality. Melodies modified themselves a little bit with the English lyrics.

 

LC: The cd opens with an Al DiMeola cover? Demir, are you responsible for this?

 

Demir: Yes! We asked Al DiMeola if he would play three songs in the album and then Mike Stern and I played one the songs before he came to the studio, and it sounded good. So while Al was on the way to the studio, I came up with the idea to open the album with a two-guitar piece and have Al DiMeola play both. I finished the piece just before he came in to the studio and I handed over the notes to him. Sometimes your heart and mind becomes one and you accomplish things that you couldn’t be able to if you have a very close deadline. Of course when he played it, it’s magic, it turns into music!

 

LC: The jazzier stuff on the cd carries a great deal of familiarity – it seems that you two grew up with jazz. True or not?

 

Demir: I studied jazz part-time in college in Ankara, Turkey and then some more in Hollywood. Honestly, jazz never has been my “real thing.” I know the idea, some of the things I write might fall close to the genre but real jazz performers play them and make it into real jazz. When I perform them, they come out mostly blues or rock. On the other hand I like listening to jazz.

 

LC: Nothing But to Pray is my favorite on the album. It’s especially haunting. What are the origins of this song, and what have you added to the original?

 

Sertab: I applied my own singing style to the melody. I wanted it to sound unique without falling into any style or category.

 

Demir: I harmonized the melody in away that I believe fit with the story line. I felt like I was creating a context where the event was happening. It’s really strange when you harmonize a melody that doesn’t have any. The melody begins to change meaning with different harmonies. Maybe some other person would use different harmonies and the whole thing would mean something else. To give a literal example – a bird was flying before the sunrise; a bird was flying before the sunrise over the silent battlefield…you know what I mean? The setting changes the meaning.

 

LC: What does your song Shehnaz on Shiraz mean?

 

Demir: The original name of this song is Sehnaz Longa. Sehnaz is a female name. Longa is a certain instrumental style in Ottoman music where instruments play fast passages in unison, roughly. I thought I’d swing this melody and harmonize it and put walking bass lines and improvisations in it. When I started swinging it I thought “Oh Shehnaz must be drunk!” Then I fantasized about a beautiful harem lady who’s getting drunk and dancing. She would be drinking wine and the wine would be a shiraz. So, that’s the story…Shehnaz on Shiraz!

 

LC: Will someone be doing real live Turkish ebru waterpainting via projection onstage at your Summerstage show like you have at your club concerts?

 

Sertab:  Unfortunately not at the Summerstage, because we will be playing in daylight and the projection doesn’t work…

 

LC: The bill you’re playing on is amazing, some of the most innovative and important artists in Turkey playing together for the first time in New York – is this an everyday kind of program in Turkey or would it be as special an event there as it is here?

 

Sertab: There are only a small number of festivals in Turkey, and they are mostly rock festivals. Normally this lineup is one that you couldn’t come across with. This is also an unusual situation for Turkey.

 

Demir: I have always liked MFO and I know them personally. Great guys besides being great musicians. It’s gonna be my first time sharing the stage with them at an event. I knew Husnu before he made his solo career. He plays clarinet incredibly but not a lot of people know, I actually witnessed this in one of my TV music recordings that he plays the trumpet in such a way that I’d never heard. He plays Turkish music on trumpet!

 

LC: Will this be like a bunch of old friends hanging out, or do you the various bands involved – MFO, Hüsnü Senlendirici etc. – all travel in different circles?

 

Sertab: Well, we are living in New York now, half the year, so we’ll walk to the event from our home in Upper West Side. We were at a dinner last night with everyone but everyone travels separately I think. Half of MFO isn’t here yet. When we get together, it’s a lot of laughing and great times!

 

LC: Anita Baker’s coming to town, is that something you’d be into, or way too mainstream for you?

 

Demir: I would love to see her but I’ll be in Turkey. July 27th right?

 

LC: Yeah. That was a trick question actually.

 

Sertab: It is actually too mainstream for me but I always like to listen to high class performance singers.

 

Painted on Water play Central Park Summerstage this Saturday as part of the “Turkish Woodstock” festival Istanbulive with Turkish rock legends MFO, iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici and the NY Gypsy All-Stars. Doors are at 3, admission is free and early arrival is extremely recommended.

June 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Zlatne Uste and Raya Brass Band at Drom, NYC 6/13/09

Big party at Dracula’s castle last night, were you there? Alone in a darkened room, The Count? Not exactly. While not quite the mobscene that the NY Gypsy Festival’s show at le Poisson Rouge was last month, the big Balkan brass band concert last night was well-attended and deliriously fun. It was something of a juxtaposition of the old guard and the young lions of the thriving but still largely under-the-radar New York Balkan underground. The dancing started before the bands did, the dj spinning an auspiciously diverse, pan-global mix of Mehanata-style stuff while a line formed and circled the room, growing longer by the minute. Then Zlatne Uste took the stage. The nine-piece Balkan brass juggernaut – four horns, trumpet, tuba, drum and two saxes – were the first of the New York Balkan brass bands, dating from way back in 1983. Their name means “golden lips,” definitely a boast, but they back it up. “Most of us are older than you are,” their trumpeter somewhat proudly told the crowd. A guy in the crowd kept yelling for them to play his favorite song, the Goran Bregovic hit Kalasjnikov. “Not now!” a fellow partyer grinningly advised. “They always do that later.”

They opened with their darkest number of the night, basically a murky two-chord chromatic dance vamp and then another that was even simpler, serving as a chassis for some darkly intense soloing from the trumpet and sax. Most of the songs were instrumentals, although several band members sang on the vocal numbers, sometimes sharing a line or trading off.  A few were marked by a noticeable shift, opening somewhat wary, the staccato pulse of the horns then growing bouncier and more carefree. As their long, exuberant set went on, the sea of dancers grew, through a bouncy, happy number in 4/4, a bracingly soulful cocek dance and several with far trickier, syncopated rhythms that didn’t phase the dancers a bit. One of the guys in the band sang a drinking song (rakia, the potent Balkan apple brandy featured prominently). The crowd – a diverse mix of expats and Americans – was clearly psyched to hear what were obviously some old favorites. As predicted, they finally did Kalasjnikov, a lickety-split vocal number, one of the horn players leading the crowd in an exuberant “one, two, three, OPA!” to wind up the chorus.

After a lengthy break, Raya Brass Band came out of the back room and secured a spot on the floor, quickly encircled by not one but two lines of dancers. There’s been a buzz about this band lately and it’s well-deserved. Where Zlatne Uste got the party going, these guys took it up a notch. Their sound is looser, far darker and they threaten to fly off the hinges at any second: this band is all about adrenaline, taking the intensity as high as it can go and then adding something on top of that. Clarinetist and sax player Greg Squared – also of the equally intense, somewhat more diverse Ansambl Mastika – is a pyrotechnic player in the Ivo Papasov mold, delivering an endless series of long, careening, wildly flurrying clarinet solos packed with lightning-fast melismas. On the sax, he backed off only a little. Yet it was his achingly terse, minimalist clarinet solo toward the end of the set that was the most intense of all. Trumpeter Ben Syversen is a kindred spirit, blazing through the songs’ eerie Middle Eastern scales while accordionist Matthew Fass (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar) held things together as much as he could, ominously and atmospherically. Sometimes the band would all blast through the same repetitive riff as an ensemble, otherwise barrelling along with the fat, undulating groove of the tuba and drum as trumpet, sax or clarinet cut loose, the songs going on for minutes on end without respite. Eventually, two of the women from the Brooklyn Balkan a-capella quartet Black Sea Hotel (who have a sensationally good debut album just out) joined in and belted a few choruses

By 2 AM, the drunk munchies were kicking in, and the kitchen was still serving food. By the way, these NY Gypsy Festival events are a surefire way to get away from tourists and trendoids. Tourists, if they knew this stuff existed, would think it’s weird and scary (a lot of it is); trendoids, if they knew anything about it, would ridicule it as declasse. There’s nothing more populist than when the band is on the dancefloor and either you’re in the band or you’re unable to escape being drawn into the joyous vortex of dancers around them.

Raya Brass Band is at Mehanata on 6/25 at 9; the 6/27 Turkish Woodstock at Central Park Summerstage at 3 featuring Mazhar-Fuat-Özkan, Painted on Water with Sertab Erener & Demir Demirkan plus the NY Gypsy All-Stars with iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici is not to be missed, and afterward the organizers have kept things going with an afterparty at City Winery, Senlendirici playing with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and more from the Gypsy All-Stars. Is this turning out to be a good summer or what?

June 14, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment