This week’s guest on The 21st Century Creative podcast is Maria Bovin de Labbé, a Swedish drummer, artist and teacher, living on a peninsula in the Fjord of Oslo, Norway.
She is best known for Mindful Drumming – an approach that is less about fast and furious rhythms and more about mindfulness, playfulness, lightness and melody. It’s hard to describe but unforgettable when you hear Maria play.
She has played many different types of music, including hard rock, pop, blues, big band, Balkan-music, classical orchestra music, modern chamber music and improvised music.
Her playing incorporates a range of instruments and techniques, from the classic rock drum kit to traditional hand drums from the Middle East.
As well as performing solo shows and with the band Sweet Like Time, she teaches drummers, singers and other musicians how to play more mindfully and to develop their own unique style. She also plays short sets to bring a touch of magic to other people’s events.
I first met Maria via my blog and we’ve followed each other’s work for several years. Last year I coached Maria as she created her first solo show, Solitude, which she performed in Oslo to rapturous reception. The better I get to know Maria and her music, the more respect I have more for her dedication to her art.
In this conversation Maria talks about her journey as a musician, including how drumming helped in her recovery from anorexia, and what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated world of drumming.
She also talks about the creation of Solitude, her first solo show, and the surprising discoveries she made while teaching drumming to pregnant women for a research project.
Listen to this conversation for a great example of commitment an art in the face of inner and outer challenges. You’ll also hear Maria playing her drums and experience mindful drumming for yourself.
Maria Bovin de Labbé interview transcript
MARK: Maria, could we start with some music, please?
MARIA: Of course, Mark.
[Maria plays the hand drum]
MARK: Where did you learn to play like that?
MARIA: Actually, I haven’t played this drum for so long. I started to learn to play the frame drums with an American woman called Layne Redmond. She was a pioneer in bringing this drum. It’s a very old drum that you can find in all cultures.
MARK: Tell us what it looks like. We’ll put a picture and a video in the show notes, but just describe it to us now.
MARIA: If you can imagine just a circle-shaped wooden frame with a skin on one of the sides. It’s a very simple round shape with one skin.
MARK: When I first saw that and I heard you play, I thought of the shamans, who would use the drum as the horse on the journey into the spirit world. Would it have been the same kind of drum that they would use or is that just me being romantic about it?
MARIA: No, it’s very similar. Actually, I would say that it’s the same drum, but the difference is how you play it and not the least, the intention behind it. So the shamans often use a bone or a stick to play the drum, and I play with the fingers. And the technique I play is from the Middle East. So, for example, in Scandinavia, we have the Sami people from up north, and they have a drum similar to this but they play it with a stick.
MARK: Right. And you are originally from Sweden?
MARK: And you’ve been living in Norway for a while?
MARIA: For a long time.
MARK: So what was that like? What age did you move and what was the experience like for you?
MARIA: I never thought actually, to be honest, about moving to Norway. But when I was around 20, my only goal was to get a spot in a music conservatory or an Academy of Music. So I applied in Sweden, and in Norway, and I was approved in Norway at the music conservatory. And then I just took my sticks and a few clothes on the train and I said, ‘Ciao, I go to Norway.’ And then I’ve stayed. I still love Stockholm, my home town. But it seems it’s meant to be that I live here.
MARK: And what was it about the drums that attracted you in the first place?
MARIA: Oh wow. The first time I sat down behind a drum kit, I think I was about 12 years old. And I think that moment changed my life. And luckily for me, my music teacher at that time, he saw that something happened to me. So he said, ‘Why don’t you come here from time to time and I can teach you to play drums?’ And that was the start. And it actually changed my life because, before that, I had another plan for my life.
MARK: So it was love at first sight or at first touch with the drums?
MARIA: Definitely. It felt like coming home.
MARK: What kind of drum was it? A typical drum kit?
MARIA: Typical drum kit, yes, yes.
MARK: And so you started playing at school, and where did your journey go from there as a musician?
MARIA: So shortly after that, actually, I got sick with anorexia. So for at least half a year, I was in another world, you could say. And then when I started to come back from that, I think the drums helped me a lot. They became my sort of refuge. And I got a drum teacher, an Argentinian guy. He was lovely, but when he saw me the first time, I promise you, he stepped two steps back!
But I think he must have seen something in me because he started to put me in small ensembles, and he wanted me to play jazz. He loved jazz. We always had this little discussion because I wanted to play rock and he wanted me to play jazz. And he said, ‘You got to choose.’ And we went back and forth like this.
MARK: Why do you think he took a step back when he first saw you?
MARIA: Because I was so thin! I think he got a bit afraid, actually.
MARK: But for you, the drumming helped you and your recovery from anorexia?
MARIA: Yeah, it was my space to go to where no one bothered me, no one told me how to be just good. I felt that I could just be myself. And I started playing bands in Stockholm. I played blues and pop and big band and everything. And it was the only thing I wanted to do.
MARK: And why drums? Why not guitar? Why not, I don’t know, singing or keyboards or whatever?
MARIA: Oh, that’s a good question. Actually, no one in my family plays an instrument. I played a little piano when I was maybe seven, eight, but it never called me. When I sat down behind the drums, it was like a calling. That’s what I felt. I still feel I’m very closed. I still have a huge respect for the drums. And there is something with the simplicity of the drum. And I think it’s so beautiful. It’s so basic. It’s rhythm. But I always hear melodies in the rhythm, in the rhythms. So I feel I’m really both physically, but also connected with them on the level that it’s hard to put words to.
MARK: It has got to be one of the oldest instruments, isn’t it?
MARIA: Yeah, I think so.
MARK: Doesn’t get a lot more basic than banging something!
MARIA: Yeah. If you go many, many years back, you can find a drum in, I think, almost all cultures, maybe flutes also.
MARK: Oh, okay. I remember Javier Weyler when he came on a couple of seasons ago, he’s a drummer too, and he said the thing he loves about the drums is he can channel his inner caveman, which is, I guess, the historical viewpoint!
But, drumming is a pretty macho world, isn’t it? It’s typically a guy behind the drums in most bands. What’s it been like for you being a woman in such a male-dominated world?
MARIA: It has been a very double-edged sword, I should say because I’ve felt at home with the guys. For example, when I’ve been to master classes, and it’s just guys and me, 25 guys and me, I feel more at home because it’s the drum world, it’s my world. But at the same time, I tried for many years to play like a guy, fast and strong. And it hurt me because I got pain in my arms and it just wasn’t me.
And then I realized, ‘But come on, look at you, you can’t play like a muscle man. You have to play like you.’ People have always told me that I’m dancing as I play, it’s never something that I try to do. Actually, dance is one of my secret passions. I always look at dance videos. And I’ve worked quite a lot with dancers and I love working with dancers. So in a way, it makes sense. So now my focus is to play like me. I think actually, that’s a theme in my life, to just let me be me. Just let me play like me and just let me be like I am.
MARK: Well, when I hear you play, when I look at your face on the video as you’re playing, you seem totally yourself, in your own skin, in your own space. And I guess maybe this is the goal for any artist is to find their own voice or their own way of playing or performing or whatever it is that they create. But it’s not easy to get there, huh?
MARIA: No, it’s not. It’s been a long journey and it still is. I see it as playing an instrument, for me, it’s a journey, and I think it’s a lifelong journey, and you will take your hits, and you will doubt. And then suddenly, you’re in the flow, and it can be three seconds, I promise you can practice a thousand hours to get to those three seconds, and it’s worth it.
MARK: Wow. What is your typical day like?
MARIA: So a typical day, and this is also a work in progress to working like this, to find a rhythm in your day that suits you, it’s also a journey. But what I do now, is I get up early in the morning, 6:00, 6:30, I do some Pilates and then I make breakfast and I drink Swedish coffee. And while I do that, first I write some things, some thoughts for the day, what I want to do and maybe an intention for the day.
And then I pick up my drum and I warm up, and I practice on the pieces I’m working on right now, maybe I come up with some new ideas. And then after maybe a couple of hours, I go to my studio. It’s a small house in my garden. It’s not a real studio, like a recording studio, but it’s my studio.
And then I usually warm up behind the kit and maybe I do some things that I’m working on there, maybe I have to rehearse something for a song for my band, for example. And then I have lunch, around 12:30, maybe I take a nap if I’m smart, if I’m wise enough, and then I go back to work. And then the afternoon, I always feel my energy goes a bit down, so I try to put my expectations for the afternoon down. And instead see that, if I get anything done, it’s really good. And then I can work on a composition. I can do office work, like emails, website, social media. But I will always play something. And then I try to relax in the evening if I don’t have a gig. Preferably, I have a gig.
MARK: You’ve got the frame drum, you’ve got a drum kit, you’ve got all kinds of weird and wonderful things in the studio, haven’t you? Talk us through some of the range of instruments you play.
MARIA: I play the frame drums and I’m learning to play the darbuka. And it has a similar technique to the frame drum, the technique from the Middle East.
MARK: Sorry. What is a taibuka?
MARIA: It’s a time glass-shaped drum in clay.
MARK: In clay?
MARIA: It’s in clay, yeah.
MARK: Like an hourglass shape?
MARIA: Yes. Exactly.
MARK: Okay. We need a photo for the show notes, please.
MARIA: I will give you a photo, of course. It’s a beautiful drum. You have to be very careful with it though. And then I have a marimba since I studied classic music also, I studied marimba. So a marimba, for the one who doesn’t know, it’s like a piano but in wood. So a marimba, it’s a big xylophone or a huge xylophone. So I think my marimba weighs about 120 kilos. It’s a beautiful instrument, but it’s a bit heavy to move it, but you can divide it in parts, but the sound is beautiful.
MARK: Right, right. Well, I think I’ve seen you in one of the videos playing that. So, folks, if you go to 21stcenturycreative.fm/Maria, then we will make sure we have some video and we have some photos of Maria and her repertoire of drums. So you have a band? Tell us about the band and what it’s like playing with them.
MARIA: So the band is a trio. It’s me, who plays the drum kit and frame drums, and we have a double bass player, Dag, and then we have a singer, who also plays the guitar and he writes the songs, his name is Sjur. It’s almost an impossible name to say even for me as a Swede. It’s a Norwegian name. So we play very soulful, a little bit jazzy music. We had a gig last night in a cafe. It’s very, very chilled.
MARK: And what’s the name of the band?
MARIA: Sweet Like Time.
MARK: And again, do we have a link that we can include in the channel?
MARIA: Yeah, we have a small trailer on my YouTube channel that I could give you.
MARK: Okay. We’ll put something in the show notes there about the band. So you play in the band, you played with various bands, but also these days, increasingly you’re performing and recording as a solo artist. What’s the difference like, between the two?
MARIA: The difference is huge because as a drummer, as I see it, my job as a drummer is to support the other musicians. Providing a ground for them to dance on. That’s how I see it. Because I should never be in the front as a drummer in a band.
But then I took the step and thought, ‘I want to do a solo show.’ And it freaked me out. But at the same time, being an introvert it was quite cool to work with yourself or alone. So it suited me. So then, when I did my first solo show last year, Solitude, I actually created the whole thing. I came up with this idea. I wrote the music. I performed. I set the stage. I had a sound engineer on the day of the concert. But besides that, I designed the poster. I put it out on social media. And the way that I did everything, it never felt hard. It never felt like it was too much. Actually, it felt nice. The thing that was hard was all the work before I landed on a theme, for example.
When I tried to get funding for example, and I got ‘no,’ and ‘no,’ and ‘no’. I had a producer, at a point, which felt lovely to have a producer. I was so proud and we had a huge budget and big plans. But to be honest, we hadn’t landed on the right theme. And we got ‘no,’ on all the applications, and the producer left, and I was there alone again. And I packed the whole project for a while.
But then I took it up again and I thought, ‘No, I will do this. But now I will do it by myself. And I will do with a really low budget.’ And then I wrote a new application and I’ve landed on a theme and it made so much sense. So that was ‘Solitude’. And I got my first ‘yes.’ And it was not a lot of money. But since I had made it a low budget project, I could do it with that money. So I did.
MARK: I think this is a really important lesson for us all because whatever your field as a creative, you’re going to experience rejection. You’re going to experience ‘no,’ after ‘no,’ after ‘no,’ if you’re like most of us.
And what I like about this, Maria, it was a setback, and you did press pause for a while, but then you came back. And you came and you thought, ‘Well, how can I make this work?’ And you came back with a low budget version of it, which actually straight down tied in very well with your theme of solitude.
MARK: How do you dig deep at that point, where you’ve got ‘no, no, no, no’? Because it’s easy to look on the website. And if you could look on the website, you can see pictures and video of Maria performing, and ecstatic audience, and wonderful comments from audience members about, the amazing show. And it’s easy to look on the outside and say, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to be out there?’ Tell us, where did you get the strength to bounce back from that no and say, ‘I’m going to make this happen?’
MARIA: I think I had the knowing inside that I just had to do this for myself. And it was also, I told myself that I will do this, and I will kick out doubt forever because I’ve always had doubt, I think many artists do. It’s maybe a part of it. You doubt and you meet challenges, you struggle, but then you have those moments, those short moments, like the one I explained before, when everything flows, or you play a concert, and somebody comes to you afterwards and says, ‘It touched my heart.’ I mean, what else can you ask for? It’s the most beautiful comment I can get.
So you asked me how I find the strength. I think I have the strength within me. So I connected with that and I refused to let myself off the hook because, of course, I was about to quit many times, and I still am.
MARK: Because you would have had the perfect excuse, wouldn’t you? ‘Well, I tried. I did my best, but I just didn’t get the money.’
MARIA: Yeah, it would be the perfect excuse. But if you do it first for yourself, as I thought that I would kick out doubt with this, if I quit, that would be a total failure.
MARK: And why solitude as the theme?
MARIA: Solitude is something very precious for me. Solitude to me is freedom. It’s space. It’s being alone. I have the best parties alone. But if I’m invited to a party with 50 people, I do everything I can to come up with some stupid explanation of why I can’t come.
So, solitude for me is also like my bubble, my creative bubble. It’s sitting looking at the moon at night. coming up with ideas. It’s being in my studio. Also, I think solitude has a touch of sadness because maybe solitude is your refuge, maybe you had to be there at one time in your life. For me, it’s a safe place. It’s where I’m untouchable.
MARK: Well, as an introvert myself, I can certainly relate to all of that. But there’s a lovely paradox, isn’t there? Creating a show about solitude and sharing it with people, which you did so beautifully. And you had a full space full of people applauding Solitude.
MARIA: Yeah. It was really a pleasure to share that place or that space. And the venue was a big wide room in Oslo, in the capital. And it doesn’t have a stage. So I was at the same level as the audience, which I love. Somebody said, ‘So you’re an introvert, but you are doing a solo show. How? It doesn’t work together.’ But for me, that space when I play, I said, it’s somewhere I’m untouchable. So it has to do with that. When I’m in that space, I can take a lot of people. It’s easier when I play than if I need, for example, to speak.
MARK: Should we have some more music?
MARK: Maria, you describe what you do as mindful drumming. Could you tell us what you mean by mindful drumming and how do you practice that?
MARIA: Mindful drumming is an approach to drumming. The intention is to include all aspects of drumming. So the emotional part, the mental, of course, the technical, but also the spiritual part. So I see it as a very warm approach, a present approach, and also an approach that is about connecting the body, the mind, and the soul with playing. And it doesn’t have to be drumming. For me, it’s drumming, but for another musician, it’s them playing their instrument.
So awareness is key. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? And also, what’s your intention behind it? So at first, when I came up with this approach or concept, I got an idea after I wrote a master’s thesis in music therapy, where I explored pregnant women’s experience of drumming during pregnancy. And that was very strong. And the results were very strong.
MARK: So the women were drumming?
MARIA: Yeah. They were drumming with me.
MARK: With you? Tell us about this. This sounds very interesting.
MARIA: I got an idea because when I gave birth to my youngest son, I brought a drum to the hospital, and they looked at me like I was a monkey! They came in and looked at me, ‘What is she doing? She’s playing the drum.’ Yeah, really! But, it was lovely.
MARK: They probably don’t see that often, do they?
MARIA: No, I don’t think so! By their looks, no, never. So, I sat playing the drum very simply, just a simple beat. But it’s amazing what a simple beat can do with you because it calls presence. It also affects your brainwaves. So after drumming 10 minutes, the brain waves, the different halves of the brain start to speak with each other, and the brainwaves flatten out. So it’s something very physical.
So I thought, ‘This is something I could do, try out with other women when I write my master’s thesis.’ So I did, and it was lovely. And one of the strong results was mindfulness.
MARK: So the women, did they play in a weekly class with you? Did they have to go and practice on their own? What was their practice?
MARIA: They didn’t have to practice at all. They just came to me. I think it was once a week for six or eight weeks. And we spent one or one-and-a-half hours together. And I have divided mindful drumming into five steps. They’re very loose, but it’s like the building blocks. The five steps are introduction, warm-up, program, silence, and sharing. And I’ve actually realized that these five steps, you can put them into anything. So for example, if I teach at a Norwegian Academy, I can plan the lesson after these steps. If I have a private student, I can do the same. And the silence part, it takes more and more space. And it’s something that many of my students tell me, it’s very powerful, the part of silence.
MARK: I’m just pausing to appreciate the silence. I think the equivalent in poetry is all the wide space we have around the poem. That’s one of the things that makes poetry different to prose is that there’s a lot of wide space. I guess that would be the equivalent of silence for a musician.
MARIA: I think so. Yes. So without it, there’s no music. There’s no words.
MARK: And listening to most drummers, you don’t get a lot of silence, do you?
MARIA: Not much. Maybe that’s why I need it so much.
MARK: What results did you get with the women in the study?
MARIA: It was so strong. An example, there was one woman, she had a child from before, and this was her second pregnancy. And I interviewed her before we started to drum and she was stressed out. She didn’t feel any connection with her body. And she said, ‘It could be anything in my stomach. It could be my colon.’ And then afterwards, after our sessions together, I made an interview again. And she said, ‘Now, I have a connection with the baby. I talk to her, I sing to her.’
Another woman said, and this was after we had made a, we could call it a drum meditation, we just go into space and drum, follow the rhythms. This is parenthetical but time got very timeless. So if we drum 10 minutes or 45 minutes, it didn’t matter at all, and no one knew the difference. And after one of the sessions, she said, she was quiet first, and then she said, ‘Now me and my baby have experienced life and death together.’ Beautiful.
MARK: Gosh. Wow. This is amazing stuff. So life and death. And also, I’m hearing about the body as well, that there’s a strong connection to the body, to being embodied. In our modern world, especially with all the digital distractions, it’s very easy to be in a mindless space or just in a head space. But there’s something very physical about the drums, right?
MARIA: It’s very physical. And a part of mindful drumming is being aware of the mind, but at the same time, putting the mind aside. And I think to do that, you have to first be aware of it. It’s like going down into the body and the drums or the rhythms will help you do that.
MARK: Tell me a bit more about your work as a teacher. You work with drummers, but you also work with other kinds of musicians? Is that right?
MARIA: Yeah, I do. Since I have this thought that we need to focus on all the aspects of drumming, I do work with other musicians too. For example, now I work with a vocalist, I can’t work with her singing technique, of course. But there’s so much more, the mental support, guide her, guide her to find her unique path.
I think that is key to be a good teacher, to not have this idea that your students should be like you. For me, that’s awful. I would like my wishes to guide them and support them to becoming themselves because you are always the best when you’re just yourself. So finding your unique self.
And it’s also about finding your strengths, but it’s also finding the weaknesses. The weaknesses you need to work on, but also the weaknesses that you need to drop. Because like me, I found out, I’m not a big guy, a big muscles guy, not all guys are big muscles, of course, but I tried to play like one. And to just drop that. You can’t do that. It’s not physically possible. So drop it, don’t fight it. So that’s a wish when I teach.
MARK: So that journey that you went on, of finding your way of playing, that’s one of the things you help your students with?
MARIA: Yeah, I think that is what I burn for because I know how hard it is. And I know how helpful it is to have somebody to support you.
MARK: And I know from talking to you that, say, drumming and musicianship, in general, that there’s a lot of emphasis on technique and rightly so because it does require skill and diligence and practice. But what I’m hearing from you is, your work starts at the point where skill and technique stop.
MARIA: Yeah, that’s very well said. I want to be the teacher that I always wished for myself. And that’s more like a mentor or a coach that is so giving.
MARK: Okay. So if somebody wants to explore this approach to playing or performing, is there a page on your site? Could they go and contact you there about that?
MARIA: Yeah, of course. My website, BovinDeLabbe.com. I’m sure you will put links.
MARK: I’ll put the link in.
So what’s next for you, Maria?
MARIA: So, right now, I’ve got an idea to do a mini solo program. So it’s just two short sets of like 10 or 15 minutes each, including just a few drums so I can carry them with me, to do at for example, events. I could come to the event and play two short sets and add something to the event that I, for example, didn’t expect, or something that is just something totally else, something different from what they’re there to do. So it will be a short magic break.
And I’m also thinking about my next solo show. So the first was Solitude and my next one, the title is Black and White. And it will be about my experience of anorexia.
MARK: Wow. Another bold move for you.
MARIA: Yeah, I think it feels like the right direction to go because, of course, that experience changed my life. And it has been with me since then. So it makes sense to make music about it.
MARK: And how does Black and White relate to anorexia?
MARIA: It’s about the black and white thinking. Everything is very black and white. Yes or no. It’s very strict. There’s different kinds of anorexia, but the one that I had is the most restrictive one. And then you’re very strict. Everything is limited. I thought no, I haven’t thought about this before. I always talk about space and freedom, and that place is just the opposite. There is no space there and there’s no freedom, it’s just strict and it’s rules and it’s hard.
MARK: And one of the things that strikes me about your playing is that there’s so many little subtle shades and colors and different gradations. I’ll be really interested to hear what you make of Black and White.
MARIA: So Black and White, it’s about opposites. One piece that I’m working on is called ‘Paradox,’ another one is called ‘Peculiar.’ So if I zoom out, I should say, it’s small and big, it’s white and black, it’s space, it’s no space. It’s silent, it’s a lot of sound. Maybe not so much in the middle.
MARK: I think it’s time for a final piece of music, please.
Maria, we’re now at the point of the interview where we turn the spotlight on the listener. And this is where my guest will set you a Creative Challenge. So something that you can do or start to do within the next seven days that’s related to the theme of this interview that will help you in your creative journey. Maria, what challenge would you like to set the listener?
MARIA: I want to give the dear listeners a challenge or the challenge to listen to their heartbeat every day this week.
I encourage you to connect this with something that you do daily so you don’t forget about it. Like, after you drink your morning coffee or after you brush your teeth, and you just sit comfortably, however you want, make it simple, and you try to sense your heartbeat.
It’s not so easy when you haven’t done it before, but then we can cheat. So then you can put your index and your middle finger on the vein on the throat, on the side of the throat, or on the inside of the wrist, and there you can feel the pulse. So just listen to it, feel it and relax into it with knowing that this is the rhythm that carries you through life. That’s it.
MARK: You don’t get much more fundamental than that, do you?
MARIA: No. That’s what’s so beautiful with it.
MARK: And that’s probably the answer to my earlier question about ‘Why drumming?’ It’s fundamental to life, that beat. We say a heartbeat, don’t we?
MARIA: It’s very grounding. So after doing this challenge for a week or however long you want to, I would love to hear from you. So just write a comment on The 21st Century Creative page.
MARK: Great. And that’s, as I said before, 21stcenturycreative.fm/maria. Just scroll down beneath the interview transcript and you can leave your comment there. Maria, thank you. As always, it’s been a magical experience listening to you and being in your world.
MARIA: Thank you so much, Mark.
MARK: Where can people go to experience more of your music and also the ones who are curious to learn from you, maybe as students or to have you perform at their event, where can people go?
MARIA: My webpage is my home for everything, where you can find videos, you can find the event page and the teaching page. They’re easy to find in the menu.
MARK: So this is at BovinDeLabbe.com, again?
MARIA: Exactly. Yes. And then I have my YouTube channel, put a link to that one, where I have my videos or my small compositions. I have a trailer with my band. And also, I have a quite active Facebook artist page. We will put a link to that too. And I’m on Instagram, with the same name. It’s just my name. And I would love to hear from people. Yeah, connect with me, say, ‘Hi.’
MARK: Lovely. Thank you, Maria. As always, you’ve been really generous and inspiring. And I’m sure this is something that people are going to listen to, maybe more than once. So, thank you so much.
MARK: Thank you, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
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