Music of Vancouver

Music of Vancouver
Music of Canada
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Classical · Rock · Blues · Jazz · Hip hop
Cultural · Celtic · Sub-Genres
Specific forms
Aboriginal · (Inuit · Dene · Innu)
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National anthem O Canada (national anthem)
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Regional music

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Vancouver, a city in British Columbia, is one of the major cultural centres of Canada. The music of Vancouver is diverse, representing the many peoples that live in the city, ranging from classical and modern avant-garde orchestras and composers through a wide range of pop, rock, rap, jazz, world and country, and also including performers of classical and popular Chinese, Hong Kong and Indian music.[1]


Music institutions and festivals

Vancouver is home to a number of music festivals, including the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which one of the biggest folk festivals in North America, the Vancouver Children's Festival, the International Summer Music Festival MusicFest Vancouver which occurs in August of every year featuring world, classical and jazz music, and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which features a diverse line-up of international performers.[1]

Music institutions include the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver Opera Association, City Opera of Vancouver, Vancouver New Music Society, Vancouver Chamber Music Society, Vancouver World Music Collective, Music in the Morning, and the Caravan World Rhythms Society, which promote world music, and the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, which mixes the musical traditions of Vancouver's population. The Vancouver Community College hosts a locally important School of Music.[1] New Music West, along with staging upcoming talent also host workshops for those in the music industry, or those trying to make it in the music industry. A protest to that festival's entry fee, Music waste, has now become an important alternative music festival in its own right. UBC's radio station CiTR hosts an annual battle of the bands called Shindig, along with a monthly arts and culture magazine called Discorder.

The Rogue Folk Club is a part of the Vancouver scene, and puts on shows at the St. James Community Centre and the Capilano University Theatre for the Performing Arts. Other music venues in the city include the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, the Vogue Theatre, the Croatian Cultural Centre, Italian Cultural Centre, The Kay Meek Centre for the Performing Arts theatre at West Vancouver Secondary School, the auditorium of the Vancouver School of Music, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and many others.[1]

The Railway Club, The Lamplighter, The Media Club, The Red Room, the Bourbon, Anza Club, The Waldorf Hotel, The Astoria, The Biltmore, Pub 340, Venue (formerly the Plaza), the Rickshaw Theatre and Pat's Pub, all host live music. Many venues have been closed due to Vancouver's notoriously strict licensing policies, such as The Cobalt, The Sugar Refinery and the Mesa Luna. The Starfish Room and Richard's on Richards have both been demolished to make way for condos.[2]

The tough licensing and high priced real estate climate in Vancouver has caused the city to have an illegal underground venue scene, which is regularly at odds with City Hall and the police.[2][3]

Music history

The first known musical entertainments (other than those provided by First Nations residents, and informally by millworkers, sailors, loggers and tavern keepers) in what would later become Vancouver were Methodist church services led by a Mrs. Sullivan in Gastown, who was of West Indian origin. Her son Arthur became popular with Vancouver impresarios as a Master of Ceremonies and his career as a singer, actor and host bridged the pre-railway Gastown era with the glitter of Vancouver's nightlife in the '20s and '30s.

The city has had a sometimes-vibrant musical culture since the days it was on the worldwide circuit known as "Grand Tour", which included clubs in centres such as New York, London, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Cairo, Sydney, San Francisco and even Dawson City. Artists such as Caruso and Pavlova trod the boards in Vancouver and the city regularly feted musical dignitaries of similar calibre, as the CPR terminus was on the main route from London to the Orient. Attached to the Canadian Pacific's Hotel Vancouver (Demolished) second Hotel Vancouver (now the location of the Toronto-Dominion Tower on Georgia Street) was an opera house in neo-Egyptian art deco styling fronting on Granville Street. When this theatre closed and was demolished to make way for the new Pacific Centre in the early 1970s its name was the Lyric Theatre, but it was the original bearer of the name Orpheum Theatre, now worn by the restored vaudeville house a block farther down Granville. The newer Orpheum was home to one of the last full-scale Wurlitzer organs, installed in the theatre in the age of silent cinema.

The Orpheum Theatre with advertising for the movie Lady Luck. Dated about 1946.

The Lyric (the original Orpheum) was home to the city's first resident orchestra, until the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) was founded (its home was in the Capitol Theatre). The city also had several professional and amateur musical theatre companies, and a lavish original musical styled on British auteurs Gilbert and Sullivan, Atlantis, was premiered at the "Lyric" in the 1920s (anticipating a world tour, but getting mixed reviews). Other theatres with stages for live theatre, opera and music were in the Vogue (still standing), the Strand, the Coronet (all movie theatres in their last days, the Strand opposite the Bay across Georgia, the Coronet opposite the Bay across Granville) and at two vanished opera houses on Pender Street, one near Howe Street, the other at what is now Carrall and Pender (then named Dupont Street). The now-derelict stretch of Hastings Street between Main and Cambie was known as "the Great White Way" because of its many theatres, restaurants and bright neon decor, and was home to the Beacon and Lux theatres and the original cinema of the continent-wide Pantages chain (the Pantages family are also the founders of the city's annual Polar Bear Swim on English Bay). The original movie theatre was the tiny Savoy (1902) on Cordova Street (approximately where the Telecom building meets the newly rebuilt Woodwards garage), which in the 1890s and early '00s was the main social and shopping promenade in the city. The Lyric and the greatly expanded Hotel Vancouver, the second by that name, were intended by the CPR's property division to attract commercial life up out of the older part of the city, and as a result restaurants, stores and other theatres quickly opened in the same area, giving birth to the strip once known as Theatre Row and now prosaically retitled the Granville Entertainment District, aka Granville Mall (its southern three blocks anyway - Theatre Row extended to Dunsmuir Street because of the Lyric, Strand and Coronet). Other stages and movie theatres typically were found in each of the city's local commercial areas - the Park, Stanley, Hollywood, Rio, York, Dunbar and others. An important stage for musical theatre, the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, was built by the Malkin family, who made their fortune made in wholesale groceries. Malkin Bowl's resident company, Theatre Under the Stars (often just referred to as TUTS) was a popular and critical success for many years (rain and fog permitting). Its successor in the 1970s was less-successful Theatre in the Park, although a revamped and improved company in recent years has re-taken the name Theatre Under The Stars.

The city is home to two professional opera companies, the Vancouver Opera and the City Opera of Vancouver, the latter committed to chamber opera. There is a plethora of small specialized classical and early music ensembles and individual performers. The city is home to several full-size pipe organs, the more well-known ones being at the UBC School of Music and St Andrews-Wesley United Church on Burrard (there is another of the same vintage at Christ Church Cathedral in New Westminster). Most universities and colleges in the region have music and theatre programs, the most notable being at UBC (the Freddy Wood Theatre and UBC music's opera program) and Langara College's Studio 58 theatre intensive study/performance program. SFU's music and theatre programs are known for being more radical and experimental in nature, while Capilano College and other colleges are known for their jazz and popular music formats.

Complementing mainstream entertainment and high art, it follows naturally that a city that began life as a nearly all-male seaport, fishing and lumbering town would have a tradition of burlesque, and also of popular music. No doubt musical entertainments were to be had in the old bordellos of the pre-railway days, as also in private gentlemen's clubs, but these artists are unrecorded, other than the erstwhile singer-actress Lulu Sweet, the namesake of Lulu Island (the City of Richmond) and purported mistress of the Mayor of Vancouver. Indeed, folk music in general went unrecorded in western Canada until the work of Vancouver folklorist Philip J. Thomas, who first published Songs of the Pacific Northwest in 1979.[3]

Throughout Vancouver's history, Chinese opera and other Chinese musical performances were organized in Chinatown, and several Chinese Benevolent Organizations had their own private orchestras. Similarly in "Little Yokohama", aka Japantown, Japanese musical and theatrical arts were practised and performed. Other ethnic groups also formed their own musical groups, such as the Sons of Norway organization's choirs, the one-time Vancouver Welsh Choir, and folk dance troupes of all backgrounds (but notably Ukrainian). In some areas such as in West Broadway's Greektown or on Commercial Drive's old Italian-Portuguese days, ethnic dinner restaurants often had orchestras, and likewise all ethnic groups in Vancouver important popular and classical entertainers from their home countries. Cantopop and Bhangra are particularly well-represented. Scottish bagpipe bands are so much a part of local culture that over time many participants are from non-Scots backgrounds, ranging from Ukrainians to Chinese. In later years, the Irish folk-pop band The Irish Rovers established the first in their onetime worldwide chain of Irish pubs in Vancouver, partly because of the popularity of that style of music in the city (still to be found today at the Gastown pubs the Irish Heather, the Blarney Stone and elsewhere). World musics are popular in Vancouver today, and are part of the big success of the annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival at Jericho Beach, as well as part of the general musical milieu of the city, particularly along Commercial Drive's countercultural/alternative district.

Jazz music came to Vancouver relatively early, in part because of the role of the city as a residence or turnaround for the typically African American/Canadian customer service employees of the railways (porters, stewards, waiters, cooks, trainmen) but also because of the "Grand Tour" which brought Jazz celebres through Vancouver to perform, if only because they were en route elsewhere. A shantytown on Union and Prior Streets east of Main, known as Hogan's Alley after one its first black residents, became home to illicit music clubs, often harassed and shut down by the police. Despite its slum reputation, the neighbourhood was home to good "session players", but it was not until later years that black musicians were allowed to play in the house bands of the city's mainstream dinner clubs. Over the years the city became home to a strong community of blues, funk and soul performers, and is known for being home to blues singer the late Long John Baldry. The city's blues scene also is home for other blues notables such as Koko Taylor, Jim Byrnes, Jerry Doucette, and Randy Bachman and funk/soul singers Lovena Fox, Theda Marie and others.


During the 1920s, when Vancouver prospered as a "free port" supplying illicit whiskey to the US Pacific Northwest (either Canadian-made or shipped in by sea from Mexico), the city's night life boomed and several swank dinner clubs opened, despite restrictive liquor and entertainment laws. The best-known of Vancouver's dinner clubs, The Cave, was on Hornby Street a block north of the (third and current) Hotel Vancouver, which has its own show room on one of its uppermost floors, the Panorama Roof (the Panorama Roof on the second hotel was a trellised terrace with a dance floor; the new one is a ballroom with view windows). Another important dinner club was Isy's, near Bute and Georgia, although Hornby Street was the hub of the fancier end of city night life for many decades, from the 1920s to the early 1970s. Certain celebrities are associated with Vancouver's nightclub history — Mitzi Gaynor and Robert Goulet appearing regularly at the Cave among many great names who played the stalactite-decorated dinner club.

Also important to performing acts was the Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street, which remains in operation for all kinds of modern popular music but was constructed in the 1920s for the great age of ballroom dancing. The original floor, now ripped out and "hardened", was a classic hardwood ballroom floor, built over tires stuffed with horsehair and known for its "bounce". The Commodore, along with some of the hotel ballrooms and other venues, played host to the great touring swing bands as well as the home-grown variety - most prominently band leaders Mart Kenney and Dal Richards.

Dozens of other ballrooms and small halls are scattered throughout the city, many built by ethnic groups as community halls, and all have played a role in the city's musical life, some of them such as the Viking Hall on East Hastings operated successfully as non-ethnic commercial venues for many years. Others have been converted to studio or warehouse space, or have been forgotten because of their small scale. The woodframe building on the southeast corner of Hastings and Columbia was built to be the finest ballroom in the city, and it was also the first. It survived other venues built later on even though it was built only a few years after the Great Fire (1886).

Until the implementation of prohibition the lower Hastings area and the old city core at Carrall and Water was choked with licensed establishments, many offering live entertainment. Opera houses of a sort were built at Gore & Pender (the Princess, under the floorboards of which was found a silver powder puff engraved "Pavlova"), Abbott and Pender, Pender and Howe, and also by the CPR adjacent to the newly rebuilt Hotel Vancouver (the second), which came to be known first as the Egyptian, also as the Orpheum and, in its final days as a movie theatre, the Lyric (where the Sears department store is now on Granville). The hotel itself had several ballrooms, each on the order of the one in today's Hotel Vancouver a block away, as well as the Panorama Roof and other drinking establishments

The famous and glitzy Orpheum near Smithe and Granville, now a civic institution and home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was built as a house of vaudeville, then quickly adapted to the age of silent film. Within its stage was housed one of the largest and last of the huge theatre Wurlitzers, which was raised and lowered from within the stage by hydraulics. Its heady and gaudy design, relative to more classically toned rooms, was viewed as somewhat lower class in the age it was built. At that time, the symphony and what operas and musicals there were would be found in the old Orpheum (the Lyric) or on the large and comfortable stage (with no pillars as at the Lyric) at the old Capitol. The Vogue was deliberately built for touring acts (comedy, big bands, theatre), hence the shorter sightlines compared to the Orpheum or the old Capitol. The best acoustics were reckoned to be in the Capitol; prior to its renovation those in the Orpheum some of the worst (as it was designed for its hidden speaker system).

Prohibition came about as a result of women's suffrage (women were the core of the anti-temperance movement and took advantage of the men being away at war to vote in prohibition by referendum; it was softened).

Because restrictive liquor laws forbade live music in ordinary bars, there was no long-standing popular music tradition of the kind associated with places with more liberal entertainment laws. During the 1960s when popular youth culture flourished (in spite of all restrictive laws), clubs such as the Retinal Circus on Davie Street in the West End and Rohans Rockpile in Kitsilano were the hubs of the hippie scene.

Popular music


Vancouver developed its own sound in the late 1960s. From Folk Music playing in the coffee houses on Kitsilano's 4th Avenue, where people would come to see Hippies wandering the streets and hear acoustic music filling the street. Another major venue was "The Retinal Circus" on Davie St. where famous and infamous Psychedelic Rock Bands played regularly. The "West Coast Sound" grew from a fusion of hard rocking music mixed with wailing guitars and visual light shows. Vancouver was a place to be 'in the music' which shaped the youth of the day. Bands like The Collectors later Chilliwack who had a major hit - Crazy Talk. High Flying Bird, United Empire Loyalists, My Indole Ring, Mother Tucker's Yellow Duck, Painted Ship, Mock Duck and Hydro Electric Steetcar were the center of Vancouver's psychedelic movement. There was also a Rhythm and Blues scene in the '60s. with acts like The Nighttrain Review, Jason Hoover and the Epics, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers featuring Tommy Chong on guitar. The Vancouvers were signed to Motown by Barry Gordy who became aware of them through Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5. They had a #5 hit on the U.S. R&B charts with "Does Your Mama Know About Me?", written by Chong. Bobby Taylor's "King of Clubs" was home to "The Coasters" and other great R&B bands. Vancouver had it all, The Doors and several other southern bands came to play in the very creative milieu created by the Vancouver Rockers of the '60s and early '70s. Several recording studios like Mushroom Records and Little Mountain Sound Studios recorded and produced many great record albums (vinyl)such as Heart in the mid 70's who went on to international stardom with hits such as Crazy On you, Dreamboat Annie & Baraccuda.


Superstars such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (who opened their infamous 1972 tour at the then-brand new Pacific Coliseum) and Elvis Presley performed at the outdoor Empire Stadium, partly to keep the "undesirable element" associated with rock'n'roll out of the city core but also because of the expected numbers. Canadian rock band Bachman–Turner Overdrive made Vancouver their second home (lead singer/guitarist Randy Bachman still lives on nearby Saltspring Island). Certain touring British and American bands (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, Alice Cooper) have avid local followings. Some non-Vancouver bands such as Heart, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi, resided and recorded in Vancouver regularly. Singer-poet Joni Mitchell continues to maintain a residence in West Vancouver. One-time Georgia Straight music critic Bob Geldof went on to form the new-wave band The Boomtown Rats.

The 1970s brought bands such as Sweeney Todd, Loverboy, Trooper and Prism to the scene. Many of these acts began their lives as cover bands and played high school dances, before hitting the big time. Folk music also began to develop and performers such as Terry Jacks, Valdy and Pied Pumkin were regulars at folk festivals and coffee houses.

Later in the 1970s, at the dawn of the punk era, Vancouver played a central role in the development punk music as many of the local musicians had exposure to the London scene. Vancouver punk bands had (as usual with Vancouver performers) wider followings and more fame in the UK, Europe and the United States than at home. These included D.O.A. and lead singer Joey Shithead, the K-Tels (who were forced by the TV-marketing company to change their name, which became the Young Canadians), I, Braineater, Active Dog, the Modernettes, the Pointed Sticks, Secret V's, Subhumans and U-J3RK5 (pron. "You-Jerk", as the five is silent).


Vancouver musician Bryan Adams started his solo career in the 80s. He would go on to become an international recording artist. His albums Cuts Like a Knife and Reckless sold millions of copies worldwide. He has won 18 Juno Awards and 1 Grammy Award. Adams also was hugely successful as part of a songwriting duo with fellow Vancouver musician Jim Vallance. Together they wrote songs for some the music industries biggest names: Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Carly Simon.

Jim Vallance would continue on as a music industry "Song Doctor". He would assist artists in cowriting songs. His list of clients include: Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Rick Springfield, Anne Murray. Vallance has the Juno Award for Composer of the Year 4 times.

Producer Bruce Fairbairn would also become prominent during the 80s. He was initially a member turned producer for Vancouver rock band Prism. After producing their first 4 albums in the 70s to moderate success, Fairbairn then worked with another Vancouver band, Loverboy. His biggest success came when he produced Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. Fairbairn would continue to produce top artists such as Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, INXS, Yes.

Local bands Spirit of the West, The Nervous Fellas, 54-40, Slow, Images in Vogue and Skinny Puppy were prominent in the 80s also. Skinny Puppy and, later, Front Line Assembly would become hugely influential on the industrial dance and goth scenes, both within and outside Vancouver.

Influential extreme metal band Blasphemy formed in Vancouver in 1984.

In the 1980s progressive rock bands made a mark on the Vancouver scene. First Aid, formed in early 1982, was inspired by prominent British bands of this genre such as Gentle Giant, Yes and Brand X. By 1985, the First Aid band lineup of Derek Mason (Guitars and sequencing), Scott Jacks (Keyboards, vocals and acoustic guitar), Dave Coupland (Percussion) was playing various Vancouver and BC clubs as a trio, and in 1989 recorded their final Prog-rock album Stumbling Boldly Forward.

On the alternative side, Nomeansno, Animal Slaves, Art Bergman and many others... very well documented on Last Call - Vancouver Independent Music (Zulu Records), a compilation of 48 bands active at that time.

Since the 1980s, when large wave of Chinese immigration swept the region, Vancouver has since been known as a generator of canto-pop stars and other Cantonese actors. Nicholas Tse, Edison Chen, Jade Kwan, Sally Yeh, Joyce Cheng, were all just a few of the current canto-pop stars that were raised there.


In the 90s, the proximity to Seattle's grunge scene spurred the popularity of bands like Maow, the Riff Randells, Cub, Gob, The Smugglers, Nardwuar the Human Serviette and his band The Evaporators, the New town Animals, and Thee Goblins which all happen to be on the same label, Mint Records. Moderate commercial success came to power-pop bands such as Age of Electric, Superconductor, Limblifter, Econoline Crush and Matthew Good. Other notable Vancouver residents (and sometimes Vancouver residents) include Grapes of Wrath, Odds, Art Bergmann, Spirit of The West, Moist, Sarah McLachlan, and Rose Chronicles.

As grunge faded back into obscurity, Vancouver held on to a vibrant scene of its own. d.b.s, MCRACKINS, Utopia, Seamen, SNFU, D.O.A., BNU, Wisecrack, Kid Icarus, Another Joe, Superchief, Submission Hold, etc.

Despite the commercialization of grunge, Vancouver maintained a quality hardcore scene. Strain, Reserve34,Shift, Burden, Self-Esteem Project, By a Thread, Red Light Sting, Sparkmarker, Target, All State Champion, Black Rice, Operation Makeout, Dissent, Witness Protection Program, the Attack, End This Week With Knives, A Javelin Reign, Goat's Blood, Blue Monday, The Black Halos and most recently the success of metal band 3 Inches of Blood.

One notable heavy musician from Vancouver is Devin Townsend, who has gained international recognition and critical success with his band Strapping Young Lad and self-titled progressive side projects, primarily The Devin Townsend Band. Townsend, of New Westminster, is a central figure in the Vancouver heavy music scene, and has worked with influential Vancouver acts such as Front Line Assembly, in addition to producing the albums of numerous local bands though HevyDevy Studios.

Vancouver has always offered acts that don't fit any one particular musical slot. The 1990s were no different. Such as: Daytona, Bob's Your Uncle, Big Tall Garden, Coal, 2 Left Feet, Shine, Rymes With Orange, Circle C, Sarcastic Mannequins, Custard's Last Bandstand, Catherine Wheel, The Wingnuts, Dear God, and Pull offered an eclectic element to the local scene. Many of which received airplay on COAST 800 / 1040 AM from 1990-93.

The 1990s also sparked a Vancouver electronic dance music scene with the creation of a radio station called Z95.3 FM. The station heavily promoted Vancouver's dance/pop music, discovering various artists and bands such as Thomas Donovan, Soul Decision, Red Sector One, and The West End Girls.[4]


Vancouver indie music has also maintained a strong international presence, most notably with the success of such bands as Tegan and Sara, The New Pornographers, Vancouver transplants Hot Hot Heat, Fake Shark - Real Zombie!, Big John Bates, the Organ, Destroyer, Black Mountain, Mother Mother and Dan Mangan. Other known indie bands/artists of note are: The Pack AD, You Say Party, Japandroids, White Lung, Veda Hille, S.T.R.E.E.T.S, Ladyhawk, Blood Meridian, Bend Sinister, Fond of Tigers, Parlour Steps, Lightning Dust, Cinderpop, The Orchid Highway, CR Avery, Neins Circa, Book of Lists, Ford Pier, Mass Undergoe, Petroleum By-Product, The Doers, Run Chico Run, Young Liars, Hey Ocean!, Said the Whale, Secret Mommy, Twin Crystals, The Greenbelt Collective, Apollo Ghosts, Capitol 6, B-Lines, Culture Def, and The Zolas among others.

A small hip-hop scene has garnered both critical and commercial success including Kid Koala, Threat From Outer Space, Swollen Members, Rascalz, Josh Martinez, Extra Terrestrial, Sweatshop Union, Social Deviantz, Moves, No Luck Club, BZ Jam and Moka Only.

Continuing the Vancouver industrial and electronic dance music tradition to this day are bands such as Delerium, Decree, Noize Tribe Zero, Left Spine Down, Go Ghetto Tiger, Sex With Strangers, Combine The Victorious, Noise Unit, Stiff Valentine and Landscape Body Machine.

In the world music arena, some of the bands that made a name for themselves are Ivan Tucakov and Tambura Rasa, Alpha Yaya Diallo, Delhi To Dublin and others.

Vancouver's independent music scene can be heard on selected programs on its four campus/community radio stations: CJSF (SFU) 90.1 FM, CFRO (Co-op Radio) 102.7 FM, CiTR (UBC)101.9 FM and Evolution 107.9 (BCIT). These stations also,(to a greater or lesser extent), offer such diverse musical genres as: reggae, electronica, hip hop, first nations, classical, jazz, blues, Celtic, bluegrass, country, Latin, klesmer, folk, gospel, and world music in its many forms.

Selected programs on CBC Radio 1 and 2, and CBC Radio 3 online, also offer independent talent a place to be heard.

There are also 2 commercial stations 100.5 The PEAK and SHORE 104, who monitor potential buzz bands in the Vancouver music scene.



  1. ^ a b c d World Music Guide to Vancouver
  2. ^ a b [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ "Vancouver's Hottest Music" Z95.3 FM Radio Station Vancouver

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