Monday, December 14, 2009

CEDRIC WATSON AND BIJOU CREOLE- ‘L’esprit Creole’: Zydeco’s Next Wave?

Though zydeco was one of the first ‘world music’ sub-genres out of the gates, its history has been a bit uneven. On the one hand it has the unique distinction of being one of the few styles of ethnic music from the lower 48 US states, complete with non-English lyrics and all. That’s both blessing and curse, of course, because on the other hand their natural ethnic fan base is limited, and the tastes of hipsters and intellectuals is both fickle and short-attention-span. A small genre like zydeco needs a star, too, and it’s been a long time since Clifton Chenier has lead the pack with his almost-Marley-like status within music circles. Sure, there’s been Buckwheat Zydeco and Queen Ida, but mass cross-over appeal is still lacking there. In a way zydeco has almost been a victim of its own success, since once a new genre gains exposure it’s then subject to a syndrome somewhat analogous to ‘produce or perish.’ Fortunately it gained recognition as a separate genre for Grammy Award purposes, so that’s an important recognition of its unique accomplishments.

For years now rural Cajun and zydeco music in southern Louisiana have been cross-fertilizing not only with urban New Orleans jazz and funk, but also with the music scene in southern Texas, including the always quirky alt-country scene in Austin and the Tex-Mex scene in San Antonio. This has been a creative milieu for all parties involved, offering links to polka, salsa, blues, and folk Americana in addition to the more obvious connections. Enter Cedric Watson on to the zydeco scene based in Lafayette, Louisiana, a country boy from Texas intent on re-inventing himself along the lines of his Creole ancestry and re-inventing zydeco music in whatever way works best, acknowledging its traditions while stretching its boundaries. His newest album L’Esprit Creole (‘Creole Spirit’) with his band Bijou Creole goes a long way to doing just that. The eponymous opening song ‘Bijou Creole’ sets the tone for the album, a rocker in classic zydeco style, with lots of accordion and lilting melody dutifully listing their qualifications- ‘c’est la belle musique… bon musique’… etc. You get the idea.

Le Sud de la Louisiane’ continues along the same lines while adding a significant blues-rock-jazz groove to the mix, complete with lead guitar, brass, and various dramatic flourishes. Mais La’ returns to traditional Cajun forms, with lots of accordion and funky folksy rhythm. J'suis parti au Texas’ lets Cedric show off his Cajun fiddle, almost ‘Orange-Blossom-Special’-like imitating the sound of an old car trying to make it across the state line. With the next song ‘Zydeco Paradise’ they hit their creative stride, opening with a spacey abstract intro and segueing into a zydeco style with a distinct Memphis feel. ‘Lafayette Lala’ and ‘J'suis Gone à La Blue Moon’ return to classic accordion-driven zydeco musical and story-telling form, lettin’ the good times roll and hanging with ‘mes amis’, but by then, the secret is out- these guys are capable of more than just your typical boogie-woogie. Of course what would a French Creole-language album be without a song called ‘C'est La Vie’? Not much I reckon, and they do the concept justice with their slow introspective ballad evoking the values of reflection and perseverance. The rest of the album keeps up the good work, mostly rocking, but also with real country licks on ‘Cher 'Tit Coeur’, and finally terminating in a purely fiddle-based instrumental number ‘Blue Runner’ that rocks just for the Hell of it, reminding us that we’re here to dance, not think too much.

So what has Cedric Watson got that any other zydeco fiddle-slinger doesn’t? Listen to the thirty-second opening to ‘Zydeco Paradise’ with its poly-rhythms and jazz-space and you tell me. Those thirty seconds alone could be the birth of an entire new genre, where country-boy zydeco meets sassy miss New Orleans and gives birth to a savant son who can view Heaven in a glimpse, and lay down the soundtrack to it in a flash. Is the country boy with the floppy straw hat the guy to take zydeco into the next orbit? He just might be. There is musical vision there the surface of which has only been scratched. Why else would he choose to be marketing himself through world music channels? There’s a big world out there, and I think Mr. Watson is looking beyond the next crawfish festival to put the ice cream on his apple pie. I just want to know one thing- when are they going to erect a memorial at Jay’s Lounge and Cock Pit in Cankton? While I wax nostalgic over a Saturday night long ago, y’all can check out ‘L’esprit Creole’ by Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole. It’s good.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

BASSEKOU KOUYATE & NGONI BA- ‘I Speak Fula’: Is it African Bluegrass or Blues… or Jazz?

World music can be like a genome project sometimes, except here the DNA involved is an aspect of culture, not biology, and in this case music, descended through history along many crooked lines of mutation and permutation. Ali Farke Toure’, the great African singer and guitarist, was one of the first to stir the pot with his proclamations as to the African origin of blues, and its cross-fertilization both ways, easily attested to in his own music. Of course it’s not just the music but the instruments themselves that have African origins. While it’s long been known that the American banjo had such African origins, it’s only been recently that that point has really been driven home and African ngoni players have actually sat down and played with their American banjo-picking counterparts. Of course the American banjo has come a long way since its introduction into the larger culture as a familiar part of minstrel shows, to its position at the forefront of American bluegrass music. The African ngoni has had a similar ride from the background into the forefront of African music.

Bassekou Kouyate is to the Malian ngoni much the same as Earl Scruggs is to the American banjo, revolutionizing its style and status, including the introduction of new picking styles that serve to make the ngoni a lead instrument and not just background harmonic filler. To this end he has accomplished another innovation- a band composed entirely of ngoni’s, albeit of different sizes and pitch, hence the appellation ngoni ba. Imagine a band composed entirely of American banjos! But the Malian ngoni as played by Bassekou Kouyate serves a much broeader function than the American banjo, more similar to the role of guitar in American popular music. Perhaps only an innovator such as Bela Fleck has been as inventive with the banjo, and it’s no coincidence that he will be sharing the stage for many of Ngoni Ba’s upcoming tour of the US early next year.

While others have similar notions of crossing over into the American mainstream, notably Issa Bagayogo with his ‘techno’ style of ngoni music and Cheick Hamala Diabate’ with solid English lyrics and superb mastery of the American musical idiom, Ngoni Ba perhaps stays closest to the historical tradition. On ‘I Speak Fula’ the emphasis is on the picking, though he gets splendid support from wife Amy Sacko on vocals and guest stars such as Toumani Diabate’ and Ali Farka’s rising son Vieux. The album starts off briskly with the title song ‘I Speak Fula’, a fast percussive number with a pleasant mix of male and female vocals, then slows down a bit with ‘Jamana be Diya’, a deep moody ballad. ‘Musow - For our Women’ raises the tempo- and anxiety- level again, with some superb wailing female vocals by Sacko laid over a nervous jittery percussive track and some stylish finger-picking by Kouyate. This is one of the album’s best songs.

‘Torin Torin’ is something completely different, and sounds almost Celtic in its use of female vocals and choruses. ‘Bambugu Blues’ then gets down and dirty with some slow earthy blues that almost sounds like it’s being played back slow motion. From that point on the pattern is established and it’s just a matter of the featured players taking their turns and their bows. ‘Amy’ features Zoumana Tereta on zoku fiddle and ‘Saro’ features Vieux Farka Toure’ on jangly guitar. ‘Ladon’ is a piece of mostly instrumental virtuosity and ‘Tineni’, featuring Toumani Diabate, is a long slow ballad with kora that serves to accentuate the harmonic potential of the ngoni. ‘Falani’ and ‘Moustapha’ wind things up by winding them down, s-l-o-w-l-y and with feeling, till there’s but a single instrument serving a solitary singer, with another voice or two in the background chanting affirmations. It’s all in Fula of course, the language of Fulani people and Ali Farka himself, so I can only imagine what they’re saying, but sometimes it’s better that way. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this album is the reception it’s received already. Only just released in Europe, it’s riding high in the WMCE. This is Ngoni Ba’s only second album, but it surely won’t be their last. That’s ‘I Speak Fula’- available online now and early next year in US record stores. Check it out.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


No one has ever accused me of being reggae’s greatest fan, though I’ve always liked it. It’s just that after its early good-time urban Caribbean florescence and its Marley-defined climax, the good-timers turned to dancehall, leaving reggae itself with some big shoes to fill and a messiah complex that was more burdensome than enlightening. Fast-forward thirty years and the results are interesting. Ol’ Bob was prolific in more ways than one, of course, and little by little a new generation of Marleys indeed HAS been filling his shoes, albeit one toe at the time. Meanwhile a plethora of music from Africa has given plenty of alternatives for exotic palm-fringed listening, including several opportunities for reggae-style music without all the rasta-stuff. The first probes of African music thirty years ago, that uncovered Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, were indeed attempts to find suitable Marley substitutes. I reckon they did. Just because reggae created a new genre of ‘world music’ doesn’t mean they had any monopoly on it.

Like other genres previous and subsequent, reggae had repercussions far beyond its original borders, particularly within the Caribbean, where it is pretty much THE de facto collective national anthem of the region, at least of the modern English-derived cultures. That extends as far as Guyana on the north shore of the South American continent, and includes the Virgin Islands, of course, including the US Virgin Islands, which is where I Grade Records is based. It’s not a bad place to be, where the States meet the islands, and now something of a secondary center for reggae music. Well, early results for I Grade Records have been good and they’ve got a compilation album to prove it. It’s called ‘Joyful Noise’ and it’ll be available to the public in January.

Best of the lot is probably Duane Stephenson from Jamaica with the album’s killer opening song ‘Hard Times.’ It’s classic reggae, with the classic beat and classic lyrics, like ‘Hard times… hard times… I’ve got to run and hide and find a place to lay my head.’ He also contributes another song, also classic in style, the downtrodden but optimistic “I’m Fine,’ with lyrics like ‘I’m sitting in the corner but I’m fine… nevermind.” Queen Omega seconds the emotion while offering a solution with ‘Footsteps’- “Jah is our only friend, he sticks with me to the end.” Yes, for Rasta-based reggae, Jah is still the be-all and end-all, while Jesus doesn’t rate quite so highly, as in ‘We Want Reparations’ by VI’s own Batch- “in Jesus’ name they were so deceptive”- notwithstanding Promised Land Ethiopia’s history as one of the oldest of Christian countries. The chain of injustice goes all the way back through recorded history, as remembered in Pressure Busspipe’s ‘Modern Pharoah’- “Release all the shackles and chains… I’ll never be a victim no more.”

Reconstructing history to suit modern tastes and trends is always tricky business, of course, and the songs that work best are the ones that deal with it on a personal or moral level, not a vengeful one. Reggae has always been at its best with positive and optimistic messages. Guyanese Jahdan Blakkamoore is one of the best at this, with ‘Flying High’- “a new day is dawning and a new song to sing” or ‘Red Hot’- “you can really make a difference if you’re willing… we’ve never known how it feels to be loved, wanted, cared for…”. This is good stuff. Of course reggae has always been better at its lyrics than its melodies, and this compilation is no different, not that the music is weak, just repetitive. Some songs, indeed, are musically almost carbon copies of each other, the same tune but with different words. Only when reggae gets its music up to the same level as its lyrics will it be able to take its rightful place as one of the music world’s great genres. Until then, ‘Joyful Noise’ is as good- or better- than anything out there. Give it a listen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Cairo International Film Festival is the kind of film festival that I like, the kind where you can watch a lot of cutting-edge films- cheap. While many other film festivals concentrate on traipsing in some Holly Woodstars for a photo-op, while sending you to one end of town for this film, another side of town for that, Cairo concentrates its films on just three central venues running simultaneously and continuously, some films playing at multiple venues at different times, so you don’t miss much unless you want to. I’m good for two feature films a day- and that’s what they are, the idea of ‘art film’ or anything less than ninety minutes relegated to the catch-all ‘experimental’ dust-bin somewhere else, as if God invented moving pictures to go on big-ass spools or nothing at all. Tell it to YouTube. Most Indian films don’t even run over two hours anymore, so pervasive is the Hollywood format, India being the country most represented here, in addition to the Arab countries combined. Except for ‘Amelia’ and ‘The Soloist’ Hollywood is not represented at all, and ‘Amelia’ is Indian-born Mira Nair’s film. Jim Jarmush’s latest film ‘The Limits of Control’ is here, but he’s hardly Hollywood. The only thing missing is festivity (‘festival’ right?), which only comes from large crowds in a centralized location… but good price will suffice. Literature is sparse, so I have no idea who won what.

Okay, in Hollywood fashion, I’ll cut to the chase scene- expect more ‘Slumdogs,’ and expect them to be made by real live Indians, not British interpreters. They’re prolific, and they’re good. Some are regional, but most come from the Bollywood system, which itself is in a process of change. The ubiquitous song-and-dance number is rapidly becoming an MTV-style number to the point that the whole film almost becomes an extension of that. Thus it’s as if in Hollywood, instead of MTV becoming advertising trailers for feature films, feature films themselves are becoming collections of MTV-style dance numbers. Some films overdo this dangerously, such as ‘Summer 2007’, a film with an important message that almost gets lost in all the glitz and glissade. That message is about the serial suicides of farmers, particularly in Maharashtra state of India, coincidentally (or not?) the state of which Mumbai (Bombay) itself is the capital. It’s a problem elsewhere in India also, and is a phenomenon without precedent in my study of world history. These deaths occur as a result of the crushing poverty and debt of the rural agricultural population, a kind of slavery to which there is only one way out apparently.

‘Summer 2007’ could be considered a ‘masala’ film I suppose, and you gotta’ love any film that opens with a dealer-like joint-smoking scene, then follows the rich-kid medical students to their classroom, where our hero immediately shows off his Alpha-male behavior and ‘party hearty’ attitude toward life. ‘Easy Rider’ does ‘Scrubs’ maybe, or ‘Animal House’? That and more as the hero ruffles political feathers by running for class president as a joke, then volunteers (with his friends) for rural service to escape the political problems and to get a posting close to the resorts of Goa. Instead they land in a whirl of rural politics and almost get killed in the process, instead finding that their own inherited wealth comes from the same degenerate system of corruption and exploitation as the disgusting one they’ve stumbled upon, one that leads to land expropriation and worse, mass suicides. The film ultimately fails by trying to accomplish too much, running almost two and a half hours and interrupting the narrative flow with repeated MTV-style filler. Re-edit the film and you’ve got a powerful film and Hollywood contender there. ‘The Damned Rain’ deals with the same problem more directly and from the farmer’s point of view, the endlessly downward spiral of poverty and debt from which there is no escape except death.

Many of the Indian films deal with these and other social problems, including the Muslim/Hindu social divide of ‘Gulabi Talkies’, a nice film that plods along a little too slow for its own good. ‘The Man beyond the Bridge’ tells a touching tale of unlikely love and social rejection when a man falls in love with a mentally challenged woman, good story. ‘Haat the Weekly Bazaar’ deals with polygamy and the local Rajasthani practice of parading a woman through town naked if she cannot afford to pay compensation to her husband for a divorce of her choosing, though nothing is expected of the husband, even when he has multiple wives. There are more fundamental issues at stake here, also. The line that “the only independent woman is a prostitute” in Indian society says more than many tome-length treatises on either side of the political fence ever could. You can’t help but cheer at the end when all the town’s women strip down to bras to show solidarity with their beleaguered colleague. Lord help us males when women finally realize it only takes one male to fertilize a hundred females, and that the rest of us are little more than dead weight, our legendary muscles useless in a high-tech society. The Dash Riprock-style penniless consort of our heroine is great comic relief here, too. But all these movies deal with the psychological suffocation and economic exploitation of village society, particularly in India, but it could apply elsewhere, also. Unfortunately very few of these movies show that city life is hardly the easy solution.

The film ‘New York’ follows the Indian diaspora overseas, and attempts to tackle the terrorism issue. It tells the tale of an all-American Indian Muslim who is mistakenly jailed after 9-11, and who subsequently becomes a terrorist as a result. As realistic as that part of the premiss is, the part where the FBI frames his long-lost best friend in order to enlist him to spy on the suspected terrorist is pushing it. And while anti-terrorist actions and rhetoric have certainly unwittingly created many terrorists in the process- a worthy message btw- to reduce our villain’s actions to one of revenge on the FBI to restore his dignity is a bit of an over-simplification of a complex issue. Dignity is certainly an issue I’m sure, but I imagine most ‘terrorists’ think a whole lot more about Israel than they do the FBI. Thus for all its pretensions and Hollywood-style savvy, its high concept fails by the very flaws in that concept.

The film that scores big on my list, though, is a non-Bollywood-style film called ‘Kanchivaram’, a ‘Communist film’ in which a silk-weaver is persecuted for trying to better living conditions for his fellow weavers at the same time that he himself is resorting to thievery to keep a boastful promise that he never should have made in the first place. Director S. Priyadarshan creates moody Bunuelian images that manage to be both lush and stark at the same time, all in a context that conjures up the best of Italian neo-realism, a tale of remembrance, as the main character returns home on parole to deal with his daughter’s sudden paralysis. I couldn’t give away the ending if I wanted to. You wouldn’t ‘get it.’ The one musical number in the film hypnotically re-inforces, rather than distracts from, the narrative flow. Catch it if you can.

Cairo International Film Festival had more than Indian films of course, but those were what caught my attention the most, as remaining faithful to their native realities while striving for universality in their narratives. The Arab films I saw were of mixed quality, ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’ maybe the best, a very realistic ‘terrorism’ film about Palestinians whose land is in the process of being expropriated for new settlements by Israelis, and whose heir apparent is jailed for assault in the process. But the secondary theme is one of my favorites, i.e. love in the ruins. ‘Season of the Machouichi’ is a period piece about wrestlers fighting for the hand of a woman, the style going back even further than the 1900’s setting, exaggerated and stagey. ‘Casanegra’ goes into the dark seamy underbelly of Casablanca, but almost goes too far, depicting a place far more sinister than anything I can remember, almost ‘Mean Streets’ in its rudeness and barbarity, but significant shock value for an Arab Muslim film about an Arab Muslim place to an Arab Muslim audience, more like a Mexico to Europe’s US than a member of the Islamic Brotherhood.

Beside the Arab and Indian films, there were an assortment of other nationalities, particularly East European and East Asian. The one that stands out to me is ‘Twilight Dancing’ by Joshua Tong, a film with absolutely no dialogue that attempts to tell a story, through pictures, of an old man and a young attractive deaf girl with a problematic life. Parallels to ‘The Bow’ are obvious and likewise the meaning is as elusive as the images are attractive. Whether he succeeds or not is an open question, but the movie is certainly worth watching. Considering that Tong’s own written explanations reveal things that I couldn’t surmise visually, I’d say let’s keep language for the time being, uh huh.

It’s a whole new world out there, cinematically speaking. The golden age of Hollywood indie films has been supplanted by indie films from the rest of the world. Hollywood is left with its action movies, high-tech thrillers, and high-budget epics. Unfortunately these aren’t always the best movies. But it’ll survive. Meanwhile let’s feast on what the rest of the world has to offer. It’s a big world out there. Go see it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

NATIVE SPIRIT FESTIVAL- Beliefs Are for Sale, the Inca Returns, and a Local Dine’ Girl Shows Her Stuff

If combination is the essence of creativity, then it’s also key to enjoyment of it, the more incongruous the better. It’s interesting to see a ‘Native’ event in London, not exactly a crossroads of ‘native’ activity (except for a few homeless Druids). In this case the ‘native’ in question are the world’s native peoples, with the accent on Native American, both North and South American, thus making the Native Spirit Film Festival an effectively bilingual English/Spanish language event. That is not surprising, considering that it is heavily supported, if not outright presented, by Tumi UK, which is primarily a world music company. This was not a musical event, though, and if there was a focus, then it was political. The event is also affiliated with Amnesty International.

Unfortunately I didn’t arrive until the next-to-last day of the festival, so I missed much of it. But there were films about Maoris and Endoros, Igorots and Saamis, Inuits and Evenkis, and that’s just the NON-Native American groups represented. The Native American groups shown ran the gamut from Mapuche Chileno to Bolivian Aymara to Peruvian Q’ero to Brazilian Karaja’ to Mexican Zapotec and Yaqui to American Dine’, Cree, Ojibwe and Shoshone. Most of these are documentaries, frequently by people outside the tribal groups themselves, though always sympathetic. They typically detail the struggles to adjust and adapt, sometimes in unwilling submission, oftentimes in defiant resistance. In all cases the results are similar, culture clash. Other prominent themes detail the efforts to retain and revive dying traditions, often in death throes after only a few generations of clash with the dominant European culture.

A notable exception to the documentary objective treatment of natives and their struggle was a narrative reenactment of a historical episode, “In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman” by Camille Manybeads Tso, a 14-year-old Dine’ (Navajo) girl in Flagstaff, Arizona. Started as a class project, the twenty-seven minute narrative is a semi-autobiographical piece that documents a young Dine’ woman’s struggle to survive during the Long Walk in the 1860’s from Arizona to New Mexico, as told from the point-of-view of the filmmaker’s great- great- great- great­- grandmother. In other words Yellow Woman’s great-granddaughter is recounting the story told by her great-grandmother to her own granddaughter (or something like that; I lost count of the ‘greats’). This was a hard time for the home team and many died along the way, while a few brave souls hid out and survived clandestinely in Arizona.

It’s still a hard time for many on the ‘rez’ and in town and this is the other story, that of a new generation coming up with one hand being dealt to them, another being theirs to play. Camille plays hers skillfully, writing and directing a story that needs to be told. Whatever it lacks in professional chops, it more than makes up for with teen spirit. The chops will evolve with time. This story is not to be confused with the Keresan Yellow Woman story of Laguna Pueblo by Leslie Marmon Silko, though it may indeed ‘follow in the footsteps’ of it and her success. This one’s even got a killer soundtrack, including songs by Radmilla Cody and Blackfire.

One of the best films was “Q’ero: In Search of the Last Incas” by Zadoc Nava and produced by Tumi UK’s founder Mo Fini. Though listed as a 2008 film, apparently it was actually made in 1993 and details the search for- and revelations of- this remote group of Quechua-speaking natives. It seems that since then much has changed and ‘Q’ero Tours’ are now standard tourist fare, with all the good and bad that that entails. But of the films I saw my favorite was probably ‘Spirits for Sale’ by Folke Johansson, documenting the use of ‘Native American wisdom’… by non-Natives for non-Natives. This is a touchy subject, and even touchier after the sweat-lodge deaths in Sedona, AZ a few weeks ago, but you can’t help but get a little chuckle from watching sweat-lodges being erected in Scandinavia while their own Lapp/Saami populations are as marginalized and ignored as natives ever were and are in America. ‘Sauna’ is a Saami word and its original use and intent is almost exactly the same as that of Native Americans (hint hint). Aside from any religious implications, it doesn’t take a modern genius to realize that many bacteria and viruses are not going to survive the heat of saunas, or fever. The irony of course is that at the same time they’re being marginalized, natives are still being exploited and even glorified en absentia. The other side of the coin is that non-Natives are an important part of many native communities and vice-versa, and progressive peoples on both sides can easily see beyond false divisions and false inclusions. Nietzsche of course said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but then he said a lot of stuff.

Native Spirit Festival was NOT an academic event, and that might be the festival’s weak point, the fact that some dubious science was presented, only lightly supported by evidence, e.g. the claim that Native Americans numbered some 120 million souls at the time of conquest, a number much larger than any evidence can really support, “compared to only 80 million Europeans,” as if reproductive success carried the same weight for cultural evolution as it does for biological. Another speaker claimed that Aymara culture was the base for Inca culture, news to me, probably them, too, not to mention that Evo’s election to the Bolivian presidency signals a “return of the Inca(s), as foretold in prophecy.” But this is a ‘Native Spirit’ festival, not ‘native science,’ so not a biggie. The spirit was good. Certainly there’s always a bit of ‘wannabe’ attitude in anything like this, whether it’s ‘wannabe’ Indian, or Spanish-speaker, or Aboriginal, or filmmaker, or primitive or intellectual or journalist or whatever, but that’s given; otherwise none of us would be there.

The only real problem with the Native Spirit Festival that I can see is that it needs more publicity… and attendees. I only knew about it because they sent an advert to to my e-mail inbox, and for a town the size of London, you should be able to expect more than a couple hundred viewers. I don’t think it even made the daily Metro ‘zine. To be sure these are not Holly-docs with a crew of dozens flying in and setting up camp and catering for a cast of hundreds… but that’s the beauty of it. Many of the people involved would not let even a Nat Geo crew come in and have their way… then leave. These are films made by people intimately involved with their subjects. Show ‘em some love. Irony is cool and juxtaposition sublime, but love is what makes the old heart tick.

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