Category Archives: CD Reviews

Brazil Up to the Minute

Various Artists – Brazilian Groove
Various Artists – Brazilian Groove (Putumayo PUT 216-2, 2003)

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Brazilian Electronica (World Music
Network RGNET 1123 CD, 2003)

Like many global music listeners, I embrace the electronica/techno scene with caution. When the electronica treatment is applied to sounds of Africa, the Arabic world, Latin America, Native America or what have you, all too often the intent seems to be contemporizing the music at all costs, regardless of whether or not any reasonable degree of roots tradition is maintained. Thankfully, more and more releases in the ethno/techno category (if that is indeed what they’re calling it currently) are finding a more equitable balance. It can depend, of course, on how well the electronica approach fits the music
at hand, and in that respect the music of Brazil has fared well.

Two of the more productive labels around– World Music Network and Putumayo–have modern Brazilian compilations out now, and both pack an appealing punch.

Putumayo’s Brazilian Groove takes a more laid-back path, abounding with acoustic textures getting tastefully techno-tweaked and generally minimal toying with vocals. thus notables like Zuco 103, Carlinhos Brown and Aleh have their nuances carried along rather than swept away by the electronica currents.

The familiar classic “Mas Que Nada” gets a respectful updating, a good illustration of the way this collection does the job with restraint and emphasis on the rhythmic and melodic shades that make Brazilian music great no matter how it’s buttered.

Rough Guide to Brazilian ElectronicaRough Guide to Brazilian Electronica gets off to an awkward start with Suba’s rather stiff “Sereia” (the late Suba was a great talent but this particular track isn’t one of his best).

Things improve from there, as the techno touches are splashed about with abandon but local color is given room to breathe. Ramiro Musotto’s “Caminho” benefits from the murky emphasis on surdo drums, Cila Do Coco scores with the echoey “Juntando Coco,” Suba is redeemed via a lively “Samba Do Gringo Paulista” and the chillier side of things shows up in tracks by Superagua, Rica Amabis and Macumbalada. There are moments when things get more clunky than funky, but most of the 68 minutes here range from worthwhile to cracklingly good.

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The trio plays on

Vasen - Trio
Vasen – Trio
Vasen

Trio (NorthSide)

Swedish folk-roots group Vasen now appears with two lineups, the original trio formed in 1989 by nyckelharpa player Olov Johansson, viola player Mikael Marin and guitarist Roger Tallroth as well as, the quartet with percussionist Andre Ferrari (1996).

Trio, appropriately titled marks a minimalist setup that offers complex musical arrangements in which the instruments are seamlessly interwoven into an aural tapestry. And like other groups that honor Swedish folk music such as Frifot, the songs on Trio also feature waltzes, polkas and even a wedding march composed for “a couple that desperately wanted to get married,” (The Ulfsunda Wedding March). While Frifot (another trio) spotlights fiddler Lena Willemark’s illustrious vocal talents, Vasen’s focus often falls on to the nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish instrument performed by the champion player, Johansson. That’s not to say that Marin and Tallroth’s talents aren’t appreciated since the synergy between guitar, viola and nyckelharpa as well as, the three performers seen on the CD ROM live performance (enhanced CD) create an atmosphere of sheer delight and innovative musicianship. After all the music they compose and perform is nothing short of a brain teaser.

In the past, when I saw photographs of the group, I would notice their stern facial expressions further enhanced by black somber clothing. My initial thought at the time was that I would be listening to music composed by sons of pastors and farmers with the Protestant work ethic tossed in for good measure. However, Vasen’s music often explores whimsical territory. Take for instance the gleeful wink and nod, Play Tag in Church or any of the valentines (tributes) to friends and family members that appear on Trio. Johansson composed Clara’s Waltz as a lullaby for his daughter. Tallroth wrote Fiddler’s Trap for one of his guitar students as well as, Tuning Bug to check the tuning on his guitar (he plays a 12 string guitar). Many of the songs range from lyrical pastoral to lively toe-tappers. And upon each listen, the beauty of the songs seep out little by little until listener’s ears surrender to their magic.

And despite all the enchantment, I find myself drawn to the nyckelharpa. It is one of the most striking Scandinavian instruments next to the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele). Also called the keyed fiddle, the nyckelharpa slightly resembles the hurdy-gurdy (another instrument that has found a home in Scandinavian music), but the strings on the nyckelharpa are bowed instead of
played with a wheel and crank system. And the melody is played on a series of keys, something both instruments have in common. Sympathetic strings and a drone string create a buzzing sound, but unlike the hurdy-gurdy, the nyckelharpa sounds more like a fiddle than bagpipes. In the expert hands of Johansson, the nyckelharpa transforms into a musical treasure chest further embellished by
Tallroth’s guitar/bouzouki and Marin’s 5-string viola.

(Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).  

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Pancho Quinto’s Percussion Quintessence

Pancho Quinto – Rumba Sin Fronteras
Pancho Quinto

Rumba Sin Fronteras (Riverboat Records/World Music Network TUGCD1031, 2003)

A true master percussionist from a land that has produced many, Cuba’s Pancho Quinto can still astound after nearly half a century of activity. Early on, he pioneered the use of bata (double-headed sacred drum) and cajón (wooden box drum) in the already heavily percussive backbone of rumba, and his deft, textured drumming continues to epitomize the best combination of tradition and innovation.

There are moments on Rumba Sin Fronteras when he handily nails the convergence points between Afro-Cuban roots and Latin jazz as well, with no small assist from guests like keyboard genius Omar Sosa (who also soars stunningly on marimba on one track here).

By and large this is a percussion and voice album, though. The African-influenced call-and-response vocals have a relaxed, conversant quality that fits flawlessly with the array of hand drums and smaller instruments. Amid multiple layers of skin-on-skin beats punctuated by wooden and metallic sounds
darting in and out, the whole thing sounds perfectly synchronized yet somehow loose and free-spirited. And when electric instruments are added, as on the rolling funk of the opening “La Gorra,” there’s a soulfulness and sensuality that the percussion props up all the more.

Kudos to the razor sharp production work of Greg Landau, one of several San Francisco area luminaries (percussionist John Santos is another) who contribute to the overall excellence here.

So how do I best describe this disc? Many words come to mind–hypnotic, exhilarating, virtuosic, hot, cool, atmospheric, etc.–all aptly descriptive but all ultimately falling short of describing how very wonderful it is. Suffice to say it’s one of the greatest percussion-centered recordings ever, and one of my top picks of the year.

Buy Rumba Sin Fronteras

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Gigi in the background

Gigi – Illuminated Audio
Gigi

Illuminated Audio (Palm Pictures, 2002)

This review starts with the question, where’s Gigi? The Ethiopian vocalist sensation’s talent has been relegated to a musical wash that lingers in the background of Bill Laswell’s ambient mixes. So technically, Illuminated Audio is Bill Laswell’s album. Fans of the famous dub master Laswell won’t mind, but those individuals who enjoy listening to Gigi (Ejigayehu Shibabaw) will be disappointed to say the least.

Illuminated Audio
relies too heavily on reverberated instruments, exotic beats and bass often times sounding like a studio mix waiting for the vocal tracks to be laid on top. Then again, this could be expected from Laswell who also remixed Miles Davis’ Panthalassa, Bob Marley’s Dreams of Freedom and Carlos Santana’s Divine Light. Dubbing is one thing, but remastering the masters seems like an egoist’s dream.

Thankfully, there is a former version of this CD (simply named Gigi) that features Gigi’s vocals intact and it too was produced by Bill Laswell. The master musicians who appeared on the CD Gigi including saxophonists, Wayne Shorter, Henry Threadgill, Pharoah Sanders, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, percussionists Aiyb Dieng and Karsh Kale’s musical gifts are highlighted in bits and pieces on Illuminated Audio.

Often times, the saxophones contribute to an overall wash that is anchored by Laswell’s bass and Dieng and Kale’s acoustic drums while Gigi’s vocals float over the top similar to a fickle breeze wafting through an open window. On the track, Guramayle, Gigi’s immaculate voice graces tribal beats and on Gud Fellow, the Ethiopian chanteuse’s vocals flow thoughout a haunting musical scape. Needless to say, there are some gorgeous mixes on this CD, especially for Laswell’s devoted following.

In 1956, John Cage claimed, "In the future records will be made from records." Let’s just hope this doesn’t become the exception to the rule since dead musicians would replace the one’s that are still living, breathing and paying their bills. It’s a difficult struggle as it is competing with live musicians and as the world becomes more techno-friendly, perhaps the creme of the crop will be hollering "brother, can you spare a dime." The good news for some is that you won’t have to pay to see master musicians in concert when you can catch them performing on a street corner near you. Just throw a couple of quarters into their hats.

Originally published on Cranky Crow World Music

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Extraordinary Scottish Music

Shooglenifty - The Arms Dealer's Daughter</a Shooglenifty – The Arms Dealer’s DaughterThe Arms Dealer’s Daughter (Compass Records 74362 2, 2003)

Shooglenifty is an instrumental band that is creating new ways of expression for Scottish music. Unlike many other contemporary bands in the so-called Celtic genre, Shooglenifty did not find a need to use vocalists and, frankly, they don’t need singers as the band members are a phenomenal group of
instrumentalists. The groundbreaking sound of the band is based in the combination of traditional Scottish melodies and rhythms with other cultures such as their Celtic cousins in Spain, as well as African guitar, Asian impressions, rumba beats and Afro-American jazz.

But this not your typical acoustic band reworking traditional songs. Shooglenifty creates an imaginative amalgamation of acoustic and electric sounds. Fiddle, banjo, mandolin and Galician pandeiro (frame drum) are mixed with electric guitars and bass, trap drums, samples and effects. The US release is out on Compass Records, a label that has managed to license some of the finest contemporary Irish and British folk music.

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Journey through the outback

Peter Gabriel - The Long Walk Home - The Rabbit-Proof Fence
Peter Gabriel – The Long Walk Home – The Rabbit-Proof Fence
Peter Gabriel

The Long Walk Home – The Rabbit-Proof Fence (Real
World/Narada, 2002)

Die hard Peter Gabriel fans and collectors of international movie soundtracks are in for a bit of a treat. Combining his interests in human rights issues and world music, Gabriel returns to scoring movies with his second movie soundtrack–this time for Australian director Phillip Noyce and adapted from Doris Pilkington Garimara’s novel, Rabbit Proof Fence. The fare offered here is dark, ambient and
at times recalls Pink Floyd’s The Wall sans the vocals. However, upon reading the film’s synopsis in which 3 half-caste girls are abducted from their home in the Australian outback and spirited away 1,5000 miles where they are forced to attend a school for indentured servants, hardly calls for lively tunes. The girls, led by Molly, a 14 year old aboriginal woman risks everything as they escape and make the long journey home.

The story is based on true events.Be warned that The Long Walk Home is a film soundtrack and so the music here was produced to move a story along, build tension in the right places and create atmosphere. Often times with musical soundtracks, the music acts as a character (The Red Violin is a good example). However, musical soundtracks work best when we actually watch the movie in which the score originated and Gabriel’s soundtrack doesn’t offer you the songwriter’s signature lyrics or vocal
opportunities. Instead, you are rewarded with an array of guest musicians from such acts as The Dhol Foundation, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The London Session Orchestra and Electra Strings.

Gabriel along with collaborators David Rhodes and Richard Evans (also collaborated with Gabriel on the score for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) texturize their score with Aboriginal percussion, bird songs, chants, wailing vocals and didgeridoo compliments of Ganga Giri. This down under atmosphere was recorded in studios in England and you can easily imagine international musicians traipsing in and out of the studio where the master was hard at work.

Gabriel adds his signature vocals to two of the tracks, Sky Blue (reprise) and Cloudless in which The Blind Boys of Alabama augment Gabriel’s vocals. But, this CD is sadly absent of poetic lyrics and its collaborative spirit allows no single musician to stand out, but instead reveals to us an ego less musical project in which the film’s story takes precedence. The Long Walk Home affords us many haunting and beautiful moments, but as soon as we find comfort in the score’s subtlety it literally blows up in our faces(this is a compliment).

The multi-talented Gabriel understands how to embellish a screenplay with music that evokes a variety of heartfelt emotions.

(Formerly published on Cranky Crow World Music).

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Sahrauis, Music of Western Sahara

Sahrauis
Sahrauis (Saharawis)
Music of Western Sahara
(3 CDs and a book)
Nubenegra and Intuition Music & Media (1998)

In 1998, four European producers set out on an arduous journey and transporting recording equipment to the Sahara Desert to record traditional music of yesterday and today as interpreted by the Saharawis (also known as Sahrawis, Saharauis and Sahrauis) people of the exiled nation, Democratic Arab Republic of Sahara. Arriving at various locations in Algeria, the producers (Luìs Delgado, Alberto Gambino, Zazie Wurr and Manuel Domìnguez) spent 14 days traveling between Rabouni, Dakhla, Es Semara, Aswerd refugee camps and finishing their recordings in Madrid. They recorded some of Western Sahara’s finest musicians as well as, documenting the plight of the Saharawis through photographs and video footage.

This journey and the music are commemorated in a 3 CD box set and book. (The original 1998 release of Sahrauis also included a CD-ROM). However, only the two of the CDs, Despite All Wounds (featuring women vocalists) and Sahara My Land (featuring both men and women vocalist) derive from this 1998 journey to the Sahara Desert.

The third CD was actually produced in 1982 by Mohammed Tammy and released on the Spanish folk label, Guimbarda. Simply titled Polisario Will Win, this recording showcases the talent of the group, Màrtir Luali (named after the founder of the Polisario Front). The group was comprised of 14 vocalists, t’bal (large animal skin drum), guitar (lead and rhythm) and Saharawi drum. Other vocalists featured wereMariem Hassan, Teita Leibid, Mahfoud Aliyen and Hadhoum Abeid (all of them appear on the 1998 recordings). The ten tracks marry traditional Hawl with contemporary Western sensibility and all of the tracks revolve around the political struggle the Saharawis face and their hope for liberation. They are battle cries sung in Hassanija (Arabic dialect) and following Hawl structure.
Even so, the songs will sound familiar to non-Arab listeners, and at times, resembling rock music modulations. The songs might even take people back to a time when revolutionary anthems were imbedded in rock music. Yet, because these songs are based on traditional music structure, the appearance of the electric guitar only adds volume and does not adopt the Western idiom of rock music.

Fast forward to 1998, the Saharawis still reside in refugee camps while pursuing all diplomatic channels to return to the Western Sahara as liberated people. The songs that appear on Despite All Wounds and Sahara My Land could be called heart shattering poetry embellished with sonic guitars and wailing vocals, but on the other hand, ethereal songs featuring vocals and t’bal also
appear on the CDs. The songs revolve around hope for the future and despair for current strife. However don’t mistake these musicians for poster children for the cause of the day because anyone who could endure years of suffering and still keep their dreams in focus couldn’t be called victims nor would anyone think that after listening to this collection of songs. However the international community could pressure the Moroccan government to return the Western Sahara to the Saharawis.

My personal favorite is Despite All Wounds featuring women vocalists; backed by men and women musicians. One can hear the respect that the men have for the women who organized the camps and whose generosity has fueled hope in the men. And I also enjoy the acoustic duo, Aziza Brahim (vocals) and Tarba Bibo (t’bal and harmony) as well as, a Saharan Janis Joplin, Mariem Hassan backed by electric guitar compliments of Nayim Alal. However, other vocalists also provide impassioned vocals on this disc. Some of my favorite tracks are My God (a duet with Aziza and Tarba) a
devotional acoustic song, the ambient The Grave featuring Teita Leibid on vocals and producer Luis Delgado on e-bow guitar and The Earth Spills Tears, another duet with Aziza and Tarba.

Sahara My Land possesses similar musical qualities to Despite All Wounds, but mostly features male vocalists. Electric and acoustic guitars have replaced the traditional tindit (you will find that throughout the CDs, although the tindit does make appearances too) and bass guitar, keyboards and saxophone also augment the songs. By the time listeners have spun each CD a few times, they will begin to recognize the talent behind each song and distinct personalities and musical
preferences. This CD box set provides songs that could interests a broad audience, but especially a young audience. Although the song structure, rhythmic patterns, poetry and vocals derive from Saharawis tradition, Western instruments have seeped into the recording. As the Saharawi men and women struggle to preserve their culture through music, art and dance, they are slowly losing their old way of life. And in fact, many of their traditions that were tied into their former nomadic lifestyle have atrophied under former Spanish colonialism and after 28 years of exile where the Saharawis have resided in refugee camps. To further complicate matters, younger generations have studied and brought back influences from the outside (Latin America, Algeria, Europe) and this has also brought modern sensibilities to the Saharawis’ music.

The writers of the book that accompanies the CD set state. “The use of modern electric guitars, the constant trips abroad of the younger generation, the provisional living conditions on one hand and the extreme tenderness with which the Sahrauis maintain their form and traditions on the other, leads to a very peculiar situation within the sphere of their music as well as in other areas. Only time will tell what direction this development is going to take.”

Because the traditional music is so beguiling, I hope this music will be preserved for future generations and created at the Saharawis’ true home, the Western Sahara.

Buy Music of Western Sahara.

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Latin Love Songs

Yolanda Aranda & Enrique Coria  - Intimo
Yolanda Aranda & Enrique Coria

Intimo

Yolanda Aranda & Enrique Coria

Intimo – Latin American Canciones for Voice & Guitar (Acoustic Disc)

When many music lovers seek romantic music they often turn to Latin American
musicians to provide for sensual moments. Astrud Gilberto, Astor Piazzolla and
Carlos Gardel (infamous master of tango) come to mind. Combine the heady
sensations of Latin music with a real life love story involving the fate of a
Chicana vocalist (Yolanda Aranda) and an Argentine guitarist (Enrique Coria) who
met at a party, fell in love, married and formed a musical partnership while
giving birth to the impassioned CD, Intimo.While this love story acts as a selling point for the duet’s collection of folk
songs, the music on the CD in itself rises to the occasion. Yolanda possesses a
virtuoso vocal talent with a wide range and passion to burn. She easily
traverses through rancheras, boleros and tangos while never forgetting her Latin
roots. We can feel her love for tradition and her rich heritage as she nurtures
each song. And many listeners will recall Linda Ronstad’s Mexican folk music
period and Portuguese fados while listening to Yolanda’s render the traditional
songs.

Enrique adds his own musical ingredients to the mix and his expertly rendered
guitar creates the perfect marriage to Yolanda’s exquisite vocals. Enrique also
celebrates his Argentine heritage while focusing on the beauty that his
instrument creates. He strums, coaxes and caresses melodies from his guitar
while displaying his incredible musical gift.

The songs on the album hail from Peru, Argentina, Mexico and Spain. The songs
also range in complexity–Acho Manzi and Saint-Preux’s Concerto for a Solo Voice
and Elipidio Ramirez’s La Malagueña with it’s extensive use of falsetto and
other musical demands prove to be the most challenging tracks on Intimo. You
will also find a range of moods on the album. Peruvian songwriter Chabuca
Granda’s The Bridge of Sighs offers a lively respite while Argentine composer’s
The Trouble of Men offers a melancholy lament.

Although Intimo has been released on a small label, this disc is loaded
with talent, impassioned performances and a wealth of traditional folk songs.
The love story that conceived Intimo brings with it moments of magic realism and
plenty of musical inspiration, but it is the duet’s love affair with music that
brings us home.
(Originally published on Cranky
Crow World Music
).

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New Highs in U.S./Jamaican Relations

The Slackers – Close My Eyes
The Slackers – Close My Eyes (Hellcat Records 80455-2,
2003)

Zema – Black Sheep (Melchizedek Music MEL2040, 2003)

It’s odd what you find in the reggae sections of record stores these days. There’s usually multiple copies of the latest releases by the likes of Shaggy or Sean Paul, artists whose work bears little if any resemblance to true reggae in sound, ideology or intent. The fact that they’re from Jamaica seems to be the deciding factor in where their discs get filed.

Call it ironic, call it a revelation, call it anything you want, but it seems like more and more of the best reggae is coming from outside Jamaica. In the U.S., such bands as Groundation, the Uplifters and Dub Station are ignoring the commercial rewards that can come from smothering would-be reggae in rap, lite r+b and pop, choosing instead to create reggae in a more truly undiluted sense. And the longer some of these American reggae artists stick to their guns, the better they get. Take, for example, the Slackers. It’s been a dozen years since they formed in New York City, and over the course of seven albums they’ve successfully given the rhythms of ska, rocksteady and reggae their own knockout punch with attitude and sonic edges inspired by rock, funk, soul, jazz and the looseness of a good bar band.

Close My Eyes has a nice vintage sound to it, with just enough murkiness in the choppy, horn-laden grooves. Marc Lyn’s average guy vocal style resounds with heartfelt sincerity and the band percolates impeccably, riding the offbeats with snug expertise. The songs, be they fast, slow or in between, are a hot selection of toe-tapping, hip-swaying odes to the realities of life in these days of uncertainty subsequent to 9/11/01.

While many Jamaican-influenced bands the world over (particularly ska revival bands) choose to charge up the sound with heavy doses of punkish hyperactivity, the Slackers are more likely to go for a slow burn (evident on such songs as “Real War” and “Don’t Wanna Go”) that cuts far sharper and deeper. Don’t let the name fool you- the Slackers are anything but slack, and Close My Eyes is a real eye (and ear) opener. (Hellcat Records, 213-413-7353.)

Just as passionately as the Slackers go for the gut and your dancing feet, L.A.-based singer Zema goes for the spirit, even including parenthetical references to the Biblical passages she bases her lyrics on. And her connections to the real Jamaican roots style aren’t merely implied.

Zema – Black Sheep
Black Sheep was not only recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, but participants include such island icons as Yabby You (a singer and producer here mystically credited as “technical advisor”), drummer Horsemouth Wallace, percussionist Scully Sims and sax master Dean Fraser.

Zema puts on no airs- she emphasizes the lyrics with her clear, direct singing, allowing the musical accompaniment to provide the Jamaican accents which qualify this as the real deal. The songs range from celebratory (“Joy in the Morning,” “Free @ Last”) to revelatory (“Holy are You,” “Fear Not”), all beautifully edified by riddims and arrangements that have plenty of contemporary bounce but never sound cold or programmed. This is modern roots reggae as it should be, with real instruments, uplifting songs, a trio of dub versions at the end and a refreshing, renewing vibe from start to finish.

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Doin’ the Hip-Hop Horah

Solomon and Socalled – Hiphopkhasene
Solomon and Socalled

Hiphopkhasene (Piranha CDPIR1789, 2003)

If it had been made strictly to milk laughs, this disc could have been a disaster rather than a delight. The khasene (traditional Jewish wedding ceremony) is an event deeply rooted in Judaic history, a reverent but celebratory rite of passage rife for spoofing while worthy of respect.

Klezmer violinist Sophie Solomon and DJ/producer/beat constructor Socalled take the components of the khasene and make them into something of a musical narrative that in effect marries klezmer to hip-hop in a union that is equal parts mazeltov and meshugge.

You’ll both grin and groove to this sometimes dizzying sound pastiche of traditional music melded with patchwork beats, spoken inserts that are both silly and serious and some genuinely great instrumental work courtesy of the likes of trumpeter Frank London and DuOud’s Smadj.

Socalled’s weaving of beats in and around the sassy splash of real instruments shows a deftness and restraint that many of his ilk lack, keeping his craft in service of the music and connecting the whole album seamlessy with sonic bursts that are steadfastly unpredictable.

Solomon’s playing stays in the background much of the time, thus shining all the more when it’s front and center and providing a recurring reality check of the fact that there are two names above the title.

Mostly instrumental in scope, there’s also some strictly tongue-in-cheek rapping sure to meet the approval of listeners like me who’ve always regarded rap as something of a joke anyway. Ethno-techno fans, lovers of a good danceable mix and just about anyone claiming to have a sense of humor will find this well worth shelling out a few shekels.

Buy Hiphopkhasene

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