Joe Gallant's Illuminati
The Blues For Allah Project

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Joe Gallant's Illuminati
The Blues For Allah Project
By Toni A. Brown

Jazz has been part of the Grateful Dead's sound ever since its first excursion into the realm of musical improvisation. Though not what would be referred to typically as jazz, the dissonant chordings and unpredictable ramblings that set us all on our ear are indeed the Grateful Dead's own unique brand of jazz stylings.

The Dead's music has inspired many listeners to take their leads and follow them down different paths. Unlike the many wonderful "tribute" bands that continue to provide us with similar sounds and structures that have been handed down to them, there are others who have taken that inspiration down roads not previously ventured. The Grateful Dead's music is a cornerstone of what will be the music of the future. Bless all of those that have been touched-they will keep future generations flourishing with sound.

Recently, one pioneer took the huge step of recreating The Blues For Allah album in celebration of its 20th anniversary. Joe Gallant, a New York musical talent, inspired by good friend Gary Lambert (Grateful Dead Almanac) recently brought an incredible odyssey to life.

For many in attendance during the three-night run at New York's Knitting Factory, The Blues For Allah Project was an intense emotional experience. Having had no closure, time has remained unfocused for many Deadheads. This mystical event was barely advertised before being sold-out, and few knew what to expect. Bad weather did not keep the curious away.

Tom Constanten and Bob Bralove opened the show with their cosmic keyboard interplay to an enthusiastic audience response. After a brief pause, the stage came back to life with about two dozen participants-Joe Gallant's Illuminati. Replete with horns, strings, percussion and a various assortment of sound, Blues For Allah, the album recorded by the Grateful Dead in 1975, came illustriously to life.

The impact of the beautiful arrangements mesmerized the crowd. Moments of joy, eyes glistening with tears, profound revelations-all were felt by the audience. There were many superlative moments that came together in infinite grandeur under the leadership of composer/bassist Joe Gallant.

A third "jam" set, which followed the exquisite production, was much looser, giving the audience a chance to shake their bones (as well as one could in the crowded venue). Such favorites as "Cosmic Charlie," "Morning Dew," "I Know You Rider," a jazzy "Unbroken Chain" and "Not Fade Away" capped the evening off joyously. Special guest David Gans (Grateful Dead Hour) added to a wonderful version of "Franklin's Tower." Particular mention should be made of vocalist Tony Mammina's "The Days Between," which left not a dry eye in the house. His exquisite tribute to Jerry Garcia was, perhaps, the most heartfelt moment of each performance.

The Knitting Factory performances were a partial benefit for the Rex Foundation, and over $5,000 was raised.

About Joe Gallant and The Blues For Allah Project

Joe Gallant's earliest experience with music happened when he was seven years old. "There was a chamber group playing in a yard a few houses down, and it was like some smiling person opened the door to my future, and I wasn't going to see what that was until now, middle adulthood. It was a little chamber group, five strings, maybe trumpet, French horn, cello, I don't really remember, but I remember the colors of it. I didn't know music at the time, but I didn't recognize it as classical or old music. It was almost like music from the future. Of course, that's a seven year old's take on something that might have been very pedestrian, but to me it was cosmic. It was very contrapuntal and alive and moving and shifting."

Gallant's musical ability didn't manifest itself overnight. There was an obvious interest, but it wasn't until the bass caught his attention that he became fully involved in playing music. He said, "I had two false starts with music. At seven I started playing piano. It was too mathematical. I wasn't hearing it as music, it was exercise and work. There's like a carousel-you get on it, it wasn't quite my time yet. Then, around ten, I took guitar lessons. I was learning, literally, 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' I didn't connect that to music either.

"In high school I started to really hear the bass." Gallant started seeing a girl that played guitar. He spent a lot of time with her, and at their parties, people would play music. He sat back, trying to find where he fit into the picture. "I started to hear into what they were doing. One guy got really great, he was doing 'Classical Gas' by John Williams-that was the premiere solo thing you'd whip out at a party at that time. So I wanted to play something, and I didn't quite know what, but the bass started to make sense. Before Phil Lesh and Anthony Jackson, the early people I listened to were Larry Taylor from Canned Heat, Steppenwolf. I was listening to these rock band bass players, and I asked my father for a bass for Christmas in '72. He said, 'If you're really serious, we'll split it. This way I'll know you're serious.' So he got me a used red Fender Mustang. I recently saw a film of me coming down the stairs in my little red pajamas on Christmas morning, and the bass was on this orange crushed velvet couch. My father filmed it so I was framed on the stairs. It was great for me to see because I could see the connection-like I was staring at the sword Excalibur. It was like 'that's my life, that's my future.' I was mesmerized. It was the sexiest thing I'd ever seen. It was a whole new thing.

"I didn't study with anyone from '72 until '78 for a very good reason; I think it kept me from getting into a teacher's bag or somebody's thing. The minute I could pick it up I was doing melodies and trying to do two-part inventions without knowing that's not really what it's for. I tried to apply a lot of what I was hearing and what I picked up to this instrument, and obviously that affected the way I play. Very chordal, very different. I was playing with some people in New Jersey-they were pretty advanced, open ended folk. That was an exciting chapter-they were just making up chords and making up terrains, and it was pretty advanced for me, a 16-year-old."

In 1975, Gallant went to NYU for two years, but got more caught up in extra-curricular activity than in school. "Those two years had the biggest impact on me, up until that time, and resonate to this day. Tons of acid, tons of rigorous profound listening in, not a lot of schoolwork, a lot of jamming from eleven at night till five, six, seven, eight in the morning. Then we'd go down and listen to the steam come out of the ground at the 14th Street power station. A lot of us were kind of tripping around town, like the cosmos had opened and the possibilities were endless. Maybe a lot like the Muir Woods days [on the West Coast].

"The thing that changed me and made me need to be a musician and a bass player was, one morning I had heard 'Dark Star,' but I had never heard it in this way. I think we were tripping, we were up all night, everyone was asleep. I put on 'Dark Star' and suddenly that beautiful sinewy intelligence-it was like somebody's speaking voice, Phil's bass line in 'Dark Star' from Live Dead. I probably played it ten times in a four-hour window-over and over. Everyone was asleep, it was my private epiphonous moment, lying there wrestling with angels, you know that seventh, eighth hour of mad chaotic purple barrel acid time. And then coming through it and hearing again where I was gonna go in life." The experience wasn't unexpected by Gallant. "My absolute hero, the best bassist I think under the sun is Anthony Jackson, because he invented this experience. He's a rigorous modern classicist and preeminent jazz bassist. He's insanely respected, and he said he felt that way when he heard a piece by Messiaen, an organ work, 'La Nativite Du Seigneur.' He took it home, he knew that he held the key to his future. That's how I was when I heard 'Dark Star.' It wasn't like a groovy, hippie, Dead, let's-get-high kind of thing, which is a part of what they are. This was like a rare codified intelligence speaking to me. That line to this day represents some of the finest musical work in this genre.

"Musicians go through a period where they're intensely developing, and we were lucky enough to have that. Two years before the world was turned on its ear by Charlie Parker, he had a cymbal thrown at him on stage, and was told to get off because he was lousy. He was squeaking and blurry and couldn't make the changes-he was a kid. Two years later he walked back, and as if he took a painting and turned it upside down, that's how he revolutionized music. And I think that the Dead did that and Phil did that, and Jack Casady."

In 1978, Joe went to Berkelee School of Music to study the bass, and again another epiphonous bang. "I walk in and suddenly I'm playing 12 hours a day, I've got bags of blood under my fingers, the first week is an intense initiation, session after session, playing the upright, playing electric. I never had calluses like that before or since. I was just absorbing and getting the first taste of arranging, first taste of jazz ear training and chord progressions, and harmony and jazz harmony. Plus you put your classes down at 3:00 p.m. and you're playing till one in the morning. I mean, it's music school. I kind of got what Berkelee was and ended up going back to NYU in '80. I had enough together to become principal bassist of the NYU orchestra for two years."

Illuminati came together in strands for Gallant-a clean and sober strand, an emotional strand and a musical strand. October, 1987 saw Illuminati as a fledgling string trio, playing very melancholy improvisations. By '89, people were asking if they could be in the band, and it started to grow. Gallant's rigorous self obsessiveness with learning how to write charts lent itself well to working with large groups of musicians. "I see where I live as so important to what I do. Illuminati music, Code Of The West, Skin, more music to come from the Illuminati book, is for me a diary and a sketch pad of midtown Manhattan, and my impressions and my travels-my four a.m. walks through what is no longer Times Square, or through the Lower East Side, or through Hell's Kitchen-without being grandiose, I feel heir to a tradition of searchers like Ravel and Messiaen and Gil Evans who would write about their surroundings. We have painters that do that and sculptors, that's documented, but in music you have to think of what that might be. But I also think of myself as a Gershwin or a Mingus, without copping to their talents or their abilities. I'm getting better, I'm getting there, but they really were summational for their time. Gershwin knew his time, he wrote about it. Mingus knew his time, Ravel knew his time, impressionistic Paris."

Illuminati primarily performs Gallant's original compositions. He takes his music into the realm of improvisation. The band consists of a pool of musicians that live in the city. "Lately I've been weeding out the improvs or keeping them shorter. Improvisation is just the natural gap between written material. Everyone I work with is a master improviser, so they're totally capable of creating large pieces of music, like the Dead were."

Gallant's conversation often comes back to the Grateful Dead. Though the Dead's improvisation was only a portion of its makeup, it was probably a lot stronger influence than most Deadheads recognize. When asked if the Dead's jazz influences keyed him into the band, he replied, "I wasn't really listening to jazz when I first heard the Dead in eighth grade, in '70. I just liked them. The first time I really got it was a two-bar break from Jerry on Wake Of The Flood, 'Row Jimmy.' That little break he does first thing, it was so calliope-like and alive. But that was before the jazz aspects of my life. I got to jazz later, but the Dead hit me early as a big electric band. Learning more about their roots, they loved jazz, Bill Kreutzmann, of course Phil. I read a biography on Miles Davis, and Jerry was one of the only people that he liked from that time. He talks about the Fillmore, 'Yeah this cat, Garcia, yeah he really knew my music.' And Phil, in a classic interview said, 'The nerve of Bill Graham to have him open for us, should be the other way around.'"

When asked where Gallant's idea to perform the Dead's Blues For Allah blossomed, he replied, "My good friend, Gary Lambert, had a little epiphany when he was at the Great American Music Hall about a year ago. He had been at the 1975 Blues For Allah release party. He said, 'Wait a minute, the anniversary is coming up in a year, let's do something to commemorate this.' So he asked me, and we had a bunch of things we threw back and forth. He asked me if I'd like to write the charts for this, create a big band. Having ten year's experience in a large group, it sounded like a great idea. He had some ideas-verbal instructions and things that he heard, or suggestions, I should say. I started to flesh out a sense of what really should go with this. Everything's pretty intact, except it's larger, it's more colorful, the Dead don't have the harmonic palette that a big band has, they're limited to two guitar players, etc. A big band has much more, so I was able to, with complete respect and love and history with them, use that-not coming as an arranger for hire to a project of music I don't know. But to come to it with complete love, as if an uncle asked me to carve his statue or paint a picture or something, something that I would really know very deeply, because I grew up with the music.

"Blues for Allah is one of the more adventurous, surprisingly non-precedented records. There is nothing leading up to it. Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, kind of came out of a period. Live Dead, Aoxomoxoa, Anthem kind of came out of a period. But Blues for Allah came out of nowhere, seemingly. Although you hear roots of it, you hear Bobby playing little snippets of what was to become 'Sage And Spirit' in sound checks and stuff. It just kind of developed with their improvs and their jams. So coming to it with love, and also somewhat a degree of freedom was good for me.

"The whole idea of working that music is, how do you maintain it for an audience, or for yourself as being Grateful Dead music without being a transcribing service. Once you get into that, it's then starting to assign and find the coloration of each chart. And that comes from finding what I call the gravity of each chart. What is 'Crazy Fingers'? That's light, sort of supple, almost glass-like. So to give it a slightly reggae turn, the way I approached 'Crazy Fingers' was to treat it like hotel-society-orchestra-meets-reggae. So if you listen to nothing else but the strings played over the rhythm, the strings, they speak like Gershwin, they're beautiful, they're so sweet, they just build. Each verse is different, each chorus, every turn around is different. The horns-of course for that piece I decided to use a B flat clarinet and bass clarinet instead of the saxs-gives it a whole other flavor. Guys that double on their instruments add much more color. I wanted that light lyricism, I even took Jerry's solo in the middle, which I had wanted to learn for 20 years and had it on a learning tape. I realized it was such a perfect statement. I decided to play it on the six-string bass, backed by vibes and by keyboard with a whistling sound. To me, it's like someone walking down the street whistling. It's the perfect little jewel of solos. 'Help On The Way' is big, it's raucous. Grisha Alexiev, our drummer, propels it. Having a big stage, it could be coming from all over the place. That's what makes it surprising and sparkling. To a Dead audience that's used to the harmonic gravity of two guitars and keyboard, to suddenly hear a vibes playing, a violin, a cello, that's what's exciting.

"I think we did well with it. 'Sage And Spirit' called for strings, it called for a lyrical touch." This intricately woven tapestry of strings was, perhaps, the finest touch of the Blues For Allah project. Joe Gallant explained how it became such an intricate piece. "Robin Bennel, a cellist from the West Coast, learned it as a solo piece. In the last encore, after everybody else left the stage, he went up and played it. When I started to write the cello line, I realized that he already had a complete command of it. He could have gone on stage and played it as a solo, but that's not what I heard, because he couldn't take all the lines. He could do the chordal areas, and some of the main lines. So having two great violinists, it's easy to just balance that left and right of him, call and response. I'd say that 50 percent of the lines are from the piece. The obvious 20 years of well-known lines that you know are intact. The rest are me kind of putting myself in there, but remaining true. It's not dissonant, it's a deeply harmonic tonal piece, it's a consonant piece. It's not out there, it really has a structure and a flow and very specific measure-it's all written out. So the way to do it was to base it on Robin's framing it, supporting it with his cello line, and me writing on both sides. It works as a trio perfectly. We were lucky to have him because being as ardent a Deadhead as I am, he could hang with a symphony and then blow Dead tunes.

"Blues For Allah is a body of work that is 20 years old, yet the original work still sounds fresh. What approach could you take working with music that was never written for a large group? What approaches could we take to make that music not come off as a museum replica, and not come off as something that's instinctively unacceptable, yet work with a big format? One of those ways is to maintain the songs themselves, and work from within. So if you have a song like 'The Music Never Stopped,' the rhythm lends itself to deep funk. To get a light singer or a singer that isn't a belter, the chart's already like a freight train, the chart's so massive, it calls for a Tony Mammina. He's belting it out Vegas style, he's rockin' it, the perfect big voice for a big chart. For 'Crazy Fingers,' I told the band every time, 'think elegant, even the bridges where it's very densely written. Keep it under the singer, elegant so that calls for an elegant voice.' It could have been Jenna Mammina or Ellen Christi, but it turned out Jenna wanted to do it. For a song like say, 'Blues For Allah,' the ending is so interesting because it's like a slow, sultry, sweaty funk waltz. That's already in the music. To emphasize that drives it home magnificently. And it can go on and on, and build. I am a big believer in the power of repetition and trance as a way to get into a joyous state. It's through repetition and through building. The Dead were masters at that. They take a little section of 'Eyes Of The World,' a two- or three-chord vamp, and they play it for fifteen minutes, but they knew how to do it. You hear cover bands do it, and it becomes background sound. The Dead can build it, that's kind of what we tried to do. The breaks in 'Help On The Way' and 'Slipknot!' by working them, shaping them and being mature with them, you allow them room to grow. You can play a 'Franklin's Tower' for 20 minutes and it's nothing but joyous, it gets more and more huge as the minutes go by. I think that's the key to an arranger's art, finding the power in the simple things. Two chords, man, in the wrong hands, it could be disastrous. In the right hands, it's terrific."

While delving deeper in discussion, Gallant revealed that he had trouble beginning the project. "I haven't talked about this much, but I went through a really tough time starting this. I got very intimidated early by the idea of doing all this material-these are my heroes! Where do I even start? Finally I went to Europe on tour for three weeks, ruminated for awhile, went back again, still ruminating. I wrote all of Blues For Allah in about a 14-day period. I just obsessed on it. Once I found the key in, I started."

Joe Gallant doesn't think small scale. He's already dreaming up the next potential projects. "I think the next thing I'd like to do is Terrapin Station and then Wake Of The Flood."

When asked if Terrapin or Wake Of The Flood would be as intimidating, his response was, "I think Blues For Allah is the big one in terms of its difficulty because a lot of it is so jazzy and large already that it calls for more of that to make it refreshing and big bandy. Wake Of The Flood is going to have some moments, but I think the Terrapin Station suite, the whole Terrapin Station song, at this point I really want to do it, every area. Having this band already, the colors are very easy to assign, it's a question of assigning colors. I mean there's a lovely sense of electric calliope music in 'Terrapin' already that pretty easily is found."

The Blues For Allah project made its debut over two nights in San Francisco before coming to New York City's Knitting Factory for three nights. The shows in New York were recorded live. While all of the musicians were in town, Gallant also had them spend their days in the studio, recording there as well.

The intent is to keep the Blues For Allah project alive. "I'd hate to see those be the last gigs. So we are trying to get festivals, we're trying to get gigs around the area here. I'd love to take it out into colleges and spend some time out there."

Joe Gallant's Illuminati has released "Unbroken Chain" on its most recent release, Code Of The West. He continued, "Getting back to Jerry, there's nothing you have to do with his solos, they're perfect, like Charlie Parker solos, or Miles, they're perfect. When I did 'Unbroken Chain,' I did that as a tribute, as a gift for them. I had already been on Phil's radio show in '90, and he did a couple more shows about Illuminati and this other band I'm in, this Coltrane thing. I really wanted to give something back, so I did that as a gift. It turned out so great that I had room on my record, so I put it on Code Of The West (Scratchy Records, 1994). Virtually all of that, even the end which is completely reharmonized after the singer has stopped, there's another 16 or 24 bars that the Dead play-I retained their length of time, but completely reharmonized the line, but it still follows it to a degree. Garcia's solo, there's three sections that I call A/B/C section of the solo. The first part is him intact, played in unison by the strings. The middle section, I embellished because I wanted to give it a little more twist. So a lot of that stuff, that reharmonization is for me, but I kind of stayed true to his line and to the length of time. The third part out is mostly him, I'd say 80 percent. So he's easy to work with as a person who's gonna incorporate ideas. Deadheads know those lines. When I played the 'Crazy Fingers' solo, people went 'Ahhh,' clapping, probably because it's recognizable. That's a testament to the solo-it stands up.

The original West Coast schedule for the Blues For Allah debut closely coincided with Jerry Garcia's death. One had to wonder what the effects had on the project and on Gallant. "If I wasn't convinced I was going to be a musician, if I wasn't convinced that life was short, to give away as much as you can in the best possible Zen way, and to be the best musician I could be, that was the convincer. I got back to the hotel room, crying and laughing because I knew that this was like a torch being passed. Cosmically laughing. In fact I had a minute sitting in the hotel on Wednesday morning (the day Garcia died), my birthday was the next day actually, so I had my eyes closed, and I swear this thing happened, it felt like a light sword passed right through me, kind of like a torch was being passed, or a sensation of being enabled. I don't want to say like 'Jerry spoke to me, man.' It was rather like some kind of feeling that it was time to continue with this music, whether I did it or whether anyone else did it. Plus the weight of him, I don't really care what his shortcomings were. It's what he gave, which is what will be remembered forever. So really it's up to us to continue that work, I think the best vehicle I can bring is a massive vehicle, it's a big 18 wheeler. This music's never been presented in a large group. If we end up doing tunes like 'Mississippi Half Step,' right away that yells out big band treatment. If we do 'China Doll,' the string section is already there. The mechanism is in place to present this as an American repertoire band, which it should be, that's the tradition I want to get into. The thing I don't want to be known for is 'the Grateful Dead guy.' I have so many projects that are my own.

"Code Of The West is the title of my most recent release, which actually refers to S.M.P.T.E. (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) time code, which is the prevalent code in our culture. Every move we make as a society now, is or will be based, if they aren't already, on encoded televised information. That to me is as profound a threat to life as Argon gas is. Yet it's so insidiously subtle and accepted, that it's even worse. There is no antidote for it. I see television itself as the most dangerous thing ever in mankind. The fallout will be seen in generations to come. So that, coupled with my nightly sojourns into this big gotham-esque battery of rooftop gleanings, for me Code Of The West is a dark, yet subtle diary of impressions. I refer to it as a psychic landscape of pre-millenium Manhattan. That to me is Code Of The West, even the cover art clearly speaks of that. People who listen to the Grateful Dead will like certain parts of it, they'd probably like some of the improvisations. Code Of The West sort of embodies my Illuminati world view which is jazz, modern chamber writing, improvisation, I use those three legs. So there's a jazz element, a swing thing happening, there's jazz harmonies, and there is modern chamber writing which is a deep passion of mine, string quartets, and there is improvisation which is part of my DNA at this point. It's like a travelogue, there is a lot of diary type spoken word on it. There's takes on television on it. A lot of the text refers to television. There's time code on it in a very strange place at the right time towards the end. I wanted to present something that was chilling, as chilling as I could get it, but not to be non-literate. So the text is very specifically honed and shaped to present a literate view of the world gone possibly mad. It's a subtle text about a tragic sense of loss, like a gray cloth over the continent. We are living on this gray landscape, and one antidote for that is spontaneous music."

It is an incredible gift to have someone so talented, who thinks on such large scales as Joe Gallant, within the Deahead community. There is escalation and hope in perpetuity. We can have expectations for the future, and be confident in knowing that our children will have true music to listen to-and something to pass on and to inspire them further. It is critical that those within our culture step forward and create the next road that will be traveled. It is also important for our culture to support its resources. Go to shows and savor every sound. Keep the inspiration glowing, let the music grow.

Joe Gallant ended our conversation with three very optimistic words, "More to come."

Joe Gallant currently plays a six-string bass, or contrabass guitar, made to his specifications by master builders Vinnie Fodera and Joe Lauricella of Fodera Guitars in Brooklyn, New York. His other bass is a six-string made by Mark Johnson of Petaluma, California.


The following is a handful of works from the broad-based "jazz" world that have exerted powerful influences on Joe Gallant at various periods of his life. He doesn't claim it as a complete list, rather a collection that might appeal to adventurous Deadheads.

City Of Glass: Stan Kenton plays Bob Graettinger

A new compilation of very rare recordings. Graettinger wrote and arranged for the Kenton Orchestra in the '50s. The prototypical freak/genius, his works for large ensemble are probing, scary and 50 years ahead of their time.

Jaco Pastorius: Jaco and Trilogue

Lightning-dark, cutting-edge bass playing in improvisational contexts, circa '76. Jaco Pastorius wasn't yet a household name. Jaco is not his Columbia debut album of the same name, but an intense quartet setting on the Improvising Artist's label. Trilogue features a fiery trio at the Berlin jazz festival.

Anthony Braxton and Richard Teitelbaum: Time Zones

Gorgeous saxophone and analogue synthesizer duets. Moving, psychological music.

Carla Bley: Escalator Over The Hill

A three-record set, this so-called "Chrono Transduction" is a sprawling, mutant soap opera for jazz orchestra. Many shifts of mood and color, with guest narrators (such as the Narcoleptically Post-Modern Viva) and players (Jack Bruce and John McGlaughlin among the cast of millions).

Miles Davis: Pangea

A two-disc set consisting of two tunes, this was recorded at a festival in Tokyo in '75. Ballsy, rocked-out jams, hot and sweet by turn, with a Hendrix vibe. Either searching or summational, depending on where you were at the time. A definite watermark of an era.

Steve Khan and Eyewitness:
Casa Loco, Eyewitness, Public Access, Modern Times, etc.

All featuring my hero, Anthony Jackson (the guy who invented the six-string contrabass guitar). Jackson weaves through this stuff like a psychedelic sea-creature, surfacing from the sub-base floor to spew colorful plumes in all the right places.

Jimmy Giuffre:

Music For People, Birds, Butterflies And Mosquitoes

Zen-like miniatures for trio. Quiet spaces surrounding compelling statements.

Grachan Moncur III: New Africa

A great brass and rhythm section project, led by this "avant-garde" trombonist. Strong melodies, improvs and solos. Honest and direct, like strong coffee.

Randy Weston:
The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians Of Morocco

One of the best recordings I own. Powerful medicine, performed with grace, humor and spirit by a 500-year-old Moroccan brotherhood. A twirler's delight!

This article originally appeared in Relix Magazine, Volume 23 #2 (April, 1996).

Copyright 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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