Charleston's other arts festival cranks up

Sure, the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto festivals get most of the roses that are thrown around each year by Charleston-area glad-handers touting the city's arts and culture charms. And the weekend-long Southeastern Wildlife Exposition usually grabs any kudos dished out for single biggest economic impact by a local festival. It's easy to focus on those three 800-pound springtime gorillas, but they don't represent the full banquet of artistic goodness available in easy-to-injest festival form during the year. For that, you gotta include MOJA, known officially as the MOJA African-American and Caribbean Arts Festival — the 23-year-old, 12-day-long anchor of autumn's cultural cornucopia. Caribbean, you say? You better believe it. The first Charleston settlers came from Barbados, it turns out, where sugar plantation owners sent over a gang of adventurous types in 1670 to cash in on their crop in the New World. More significantly, though, virtually every slave who came through the port of Charleston arrived here from Africa via the Caribbean, where they made us one of the South's richest cities. (What, you think us white folks figured out how to grow rice on our own? Please.)

This year's MOJA — a Swahili word meaning "one" or "unity," depending on who you ask — features a range of events equal to the breadth of its geographic source material. Highlights of this year's festival include New York-based Forces of Nature Dance Theatre's Eclipse: Visions of the Cresent and the Cross, Art Forms and Theatre Concepts' Langston Hughes' Little Ham, and R&B powerhouse Jeffrey Osborne at Family Circle Tennis Center.

Labor Day may be the traditional start of fall for most Americans; here in Charleston, we kick it off with a real celebration. —Patrick Sharbaugh

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Harlem Nights
MOJA's main stage production relives a vivid jazz era

Last year Art Forms & Theatre Concepts (AFTC) got Dock Street audiences' toes tapping with a musical called One Mo' Time, set in a '20s night club where the backstage bustle was as entertaining as the up-front acts.

The theatre company returns to a similar period with Little Ham, although, according to Founding Artistic Director Art Gilliard, it's set in a whole different world. "This is a street show set in Harlem," he says, "with the In 'n' Outs and shoeshine parlors, because they're visited by numbers runners." The runners work for Louie "The Nail" Mahoney, a mobster who makes Al Capone look like Ally McBeal. It's a shadier, more dangerous world than One Mo' Time's Lyric Theatre, brightened only by the optimistic title character and his larger-than-life acquaintances.

Amid all the rackets and ruthlessness, Little Ham woos Tiny Lee. Their stuttering courtship provides the emotional core of the show, and if Gilliard and company can capture the nuances of that relationship, they'll help the production reach its potential.

Gilliard has leapt at the chance to direct a musical inspired by a Langston Hughes play. He describes Hughes as "one of the foremost African-American writers," adding that, "I haven't seen anything done by him in quite some time." Maybe that's because some of Hughes' work seems out-of-touch these days; Time magazine described a 2002 off-Broadway production of Ham as "dated and silly." But Gilliard can't go far wrong with the up-tempo period music, which is always a strong note in AFTC's productions.

It's easy for theatre companies to focus on the songs when they're putting on a musical — there are plenty of strong numbers here ("That Ain't Right," "Say Hello To Your Feet") to create some memorable moments for audiences. But those show-stoppers and the creation of a busy Harlem environment could easily come at the expense of the characters — those down-to-earth, real-life relationships, missed in all the glitz. Gilliard contends that his cast members are strong singers who can also handle comedic scenes. "Charleston has a large amount of people who can do it," he says, "but they're diamonds in the rough because we lack venues for African-American people to refine their talent. We have to get them through their initial experiences over a couple of performances."

Fortunately for opening night audiences, several of the Little Ham actors have graced an AFTC production or two before; most recently, Lisa Robinson was in One Mo' Time and Delvin Williams played a mean Lemuel Beckett in A Star Ain't Nothin' But a Hole in Heaven. A key newcomer is choreographer Alisha Simmons, who has adapted routines that were popular during the '30s.

With a larger than usual cast, Art Forms & Theatre Concepts hopes to grab audiences with live music and amusingly written interplay between characters. But there's a chance to delve deeper here, with rich dialogue and a politically conscious Depression-era setting. Gilliard will achieve something truly memorable if he takes that chance. —Nick Smith

Langston Hughes's Little Ham • Art Forms & Theatre Concepts Running Sept. 28-Oct. 7 (except Oct. 4; see MOJA calendar for showtimes) $20, $15 seniors/students Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St. 554-6060 www.mojafestival.com

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Sing to the Heavens
CofC's Gospel Choir delivers a tribute to Civil Rights heroes

Resident gospel guru Johnifer Fashion leads his College of Charleston Gospel Choir in a tribute-themed evening celebrating the evolution of their genre. Monday's program offers a wide-ranging selection of gospel music that traces its development from its early roots to the present, and Fashion's 80-voice student ensemble is a worthy champion of the authentic black gospel tradition. You'll hear a little bit of everything, from favorite spirituals and down-home gospel classics to the latest contemporary favorites. Some of the numbers will be delivered in tribute to African-American notables, like the late heroines Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks. Early civil rights martyr Emmett Till, whose brutal murder helped to inspire the American civil rights movement, will also be commemorated. The more recent victims of Hurricane Katrina will be remembered, too.

The group has a reputation for youthful enthusiasm, spiritual intensity, and stylistic versatility. They can apparently jump from a gorgeous, old-time spiritual right into the cutting-edge modern gospel sound. By all accounts, they successfully shook up West London on tour last year, and they're hoping to carry on their "spread the gospel" mission in Paris this season. While there's no charge for admission, donations will be gratefully accepted.

Fashion says he wants only one thing from his audience: "pure enjoyment" (well, maybe a little help taking these deserving kids on tour again, so they can shake up Paris, too). This group hasn't yet gotten the cross-cultural attention they deserve around here, but expect the Mt. Zion AME Church to be packed for what promises to be a rousing performance. —Lindsay Koob

College of Charleston Gospel Choir Mon. Oct. 2, 8 p.m. Free admission (donations accepted) Mt. Zion AME Church, 5 Glebe St. 797-6537

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Rhyme Scheme
Satchmo's hopes to make its poetry nights a yearly must-hear

Ah, poetry. That's the stuff of William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, George Moses Horton inscribing beautiful eulogies, and Lord Byron, mad, bad, and dangerous to notate, right? Wrong. The spoken word, occasionally tucked up in cozy rhyming couplets, is alive and well at Satchmo's, where a recent experiment in monthly events has become a MOJA showcase for slamming HBO Def Poets as well as local open mic performers.

"We bring the hottest poets down here so we can see what other poets do, feed off of that, and do better," says Charleston-based poet Jaha Knight, who has organized Satchmo's Trilogy Night. When monthly nights didn't pull crowds in, a rethink was required; the concentration on one, MOJA-linked evening per year means more out-of-town acts, greater awareness, and more time for Knight to prepare. "We hope to make this annual," she says. "These days the poetry scene is concentrated downtown — most of our local poets don't travel out of town, and I hope they'll help out with Trilogy Night in times to come."

While anyone prepared to say "whatever's in their hearts and minds" is invited to take to the stage, the pros will be there, too. Def Poetry star Abyss (pictured above) was a big draw when he attended a previous Trilogy Night, and he'll be traveling from Atlanta with a few fellow slammers, acoustic guitar in tow. More live music will be provided by MUD — Music UnDefined — which Knight describes as "a church band that converts to whatever you need them to sing."

Not everyone who attends Trilogy Night will be there to perform. Knight has been pleased to see a wide age range among audience members — 20s to 50s, she reckons — who come to experience "a true form of expression that's not on the hip-hop scene today or the R&B scene." Instead, Knight confidently considers her out-loud form of enlightening poetry to be "the new hip-hop." —Nick Smith

Trilogy Night Sat. Sept. 30, 9:30 p.m. $8.50 Satchmo's, 28 Isabella St. 554-6060 www.mojafestival.com

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Kingdom of Heaven
Forces of Nature Dance presents a sprawling, epic work spanning 10 centuries

You may have noticed a couple of weeks ago, after a speech in which Pope Benedict XVI quoted a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor musing upon Islam as an "evil and inhuman" religion, that about a billion Muslims around the world went completely apeshit. More than 600 years after the fact, the historic intersection of Islam and a Crusades-era political leader has turned into a geopolitical firestorm, sending politicians and religious leaders across the globe into fits.

It should be interesting then, to see what happens on Oct. 6 when New York-based Forces of Nature Dance Theatre Company takes the stage at Charleston Music Hall for its single MOJA Festival performance. On the program: the group's newest work, Eclipse: Visions of the Crescent and the Cross, an epic, frenzied piece of choreography that explores the cultural, historical, and mythical tensions and ties between Christianity and Islam from the Crusades to the present.

The colorful, elaborately lit and costumed work was created by one of Forces of Nature's founders, Artistic Director Abdel R. Salaam, who calls the evening-length piece a "choreo-journey exploring the conflicts and similarities between Islam and Christianity," that starts during the Crusades — the centuries-long conflict between Western European and Muslim forces over squatting rights to the Holy Land — and leads up to the Civil Rights era.

By all accounts, the dance more than fulfills the spectacle and the pageantry suggested by that sprawling time frame, featuring a whirlwind of elements that includes modern dance, ballet, hip-hop, martial arts, and Irish and West African dance. Recorded music includes work from composers including M'bemba Bangoura, Salif Keita, Wojciech Kiliar, Nóirín Ni Riain, Arto Tuncboyaciayan, Michael Wimberly, Paul Winter, and Vickie Winans, plus traditional Gregorian chants and Islamic prayers, and even segments of sermons and speeches by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Far from being an abstract expression of these eras and locations, though, Eclipse is a vivid work that has the company's 12 dancers spinning across a giant chessboard of a set through time and space, stopping along the way at small villages, emperors' palaces, moors in Britain, plains in Spain (with additional choreography by Sandra Rivera), and savannas in West Africa before ending up in the mid-20th century United States.

Salaam describes his company's visceral aesthetic as being "centered in an African and an American intelligence that is global and ecological." Much of the choreographer's work with Forces of Nature includes elements of traditional West African dance.

Despite the history of conflict between Christianity and Islam, Salaam says his work is meant not to point up the two cultures' many differences but to communicate, thorough dance, the common humanity that binds us all.

Even so, best not to mention anything about it to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. —Patrick Sharbaugh

Eclipse: Visions of the Crescent and the Cross Forces of Nature Dance Theatre Company
Fri. Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m. $15 Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St. 554-6060 www.mojafestival.com

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Crown Jewels
The Gibbes hosts a popular traveling headshow

No wonder Gibbes administrators see Crowns as one of the museum's more accessible shows. It's contemporary, easy on the eye, and pleasingly self-descriptive with no generalized references to 19th-century watercolors. When people go to see an exhibition with "Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats" in the title, they know exactly what they're going to get.

It's been eight years since photographer Michael Cunningham first launched Crowns, a photographic show which was popular enough to inspire a coffee table book, a calendar, and even a gospel-heavy stage production. Meanwhile the original exhibition keeps rolling, finally reaching the Gibbes to coincide with this year's MOJA Festival.

The traveling show's longevity can be chalked up to its pious subjects, who are as fascinating as their regalia and aren't afraid to display some serious "hattitude." Ranging in ages from their 20s to their 70s, these extraordinary ladies have an average of 54 Sunday-best bonnets each and see them as, in turn, a status symbol, a flirtation device, or even a deadly weapon (who needs karate when you have metallic netting to fend off attackers?).

Cunningham captures the subjects' characters with tidy composition, effective lighting techniques, and just enough wrinkly bits to humanize the studies. There's a rare intimacy to this work that you don't have to be blessed to enjoy — we can relate to these ladies as candid people who haven't just posed to model some fancy hats. Having said that, Cunningham's choice of monochrome photography also helps give the portraits a timeless quality that transcends any 1990s fashion faux pas.

The coming of Crowns will be celebrated on Sat. Oct. 7 at 4 p.m., when the Mt. Pleasant-based God's Way Healing and Worship Center Praise Team will open the festivities, filling the Gibbes with gospel. Whether or not they perform hits from the tie-in musical, hattitude is guaranteed. —Nick Smith

Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats Gibbes Museum of Art 135 Meeting St. Opens Fri., Oct. 6 On view through Jan. 14, 2007 $9, $7 seniors/students/military ,$5 kids 6-12, free under 6 722-2706

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All Together Now
Local soprano collaborates with CSO and CofC Orchestra members for a well-rounded afternoon of song

Esteemed local soprano D'Jaris Whipper-Lewis (pictured above) is set to perform an engaging program of classic songs and arias from composers both old and new in the chamber-friendly atmosphere of the City Gallery at Waterfront Park as part of MOJA's Classical Encounter.

Whipper-Lewis, if her powerful singing in past mini-performances of Porgy and Bess is any indication, has a voice to be reckoned with, and the roster includes accomplished local players from around town, like Charleston Symphony flutist Tacy Edwards, plus pianist Robin Zemp and cellist Wade Davis from the College of Charleston. Also contributing their talents will be Ashley Hall's resident violinist Tiffany Rice and Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs director Ellen Moryl, who happens to be a fine cellist. The 12-member CofC Flute Ensemble may make an appearance, too.

Leading African-American composers will be sampled — like William Grant Still, whose works were the first from a black note-slinger to be performed by major American orchestras. Then there's the music of distinguished pianist-composer Margaret Bonds, who may be the most influential black female composer America has produced. Also on the program is a selection by College of Charleston composition teacher Trevor Weston, whose tantalizing music has popped up lately on a nationally-released CD. You'll hear stirring material in the African-American mold from George Gershwin (who else?) and noted ethno-musicologist Michael Coolen, who writes pretty amazing African-flavored music for a white guy. Contrast will come via music from Felix Mendelssohn, plus other assorted European arias still under consideration. We may even get a spiritual or two.

If all concerned are in tuneful top form, this should be an enlightening and worthwhile event. The prevailing sentiment is the "harmonious" spirit of collaboration among Chucktown's multi-racial musical community. Celebrating that spirit, plus such a vital part of our fair city's rich musical heritage, is what MOJA is all about. —Lindsay Koob

Classical Encounter Sun. Oct. 1, 2 p.m. $7 City Gallery at Waterfront Park 34 Prioleau St. 554-6060 www.mojafestival.com

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Dread Like Me
MOJA jumps into things with its ever popular Reggae Block Dance

Each year, the MOJA Festival kicks off its 10-day celebration of African and Caribbean Arts with one of its most reliably popular (and cheapest) public events, the free Reggae Block Dance behind the U.S. Custom House. And each year, if you're not actually attending the event, drivers are advised to think long and hard about venturing anywhere near the east end of the peninsula, because they're likely to find themselves going exactly nowhere. The Block Dance — with a lineup of calypso, ska, roots, and other Jamaican-influenced jam styles, African drummers and dancers, an array of ethnic food and international crafts, and of course plenty of beer and wine — attracts vast tides of shimmying, gyrating humanity like NASCAR attracts good old boys.

The evening-length event traditionally begins at 6 p.m. in Marion Square with a Caribbean Street Parade, a colorful tribute to island culture. Children from Charleston County public and private schools and organizations will don handmade, Caribbean-influenced costumes while African dance and drum group Bob Small and Harambe perform. Spectators are invited to dance along with the procession as it travels from Marion Square down King Street to Market Street, where it jumps, shouts, and ululates its way down to the Custom House.

There, MOJA officially begins with a short opening ceremony, followed this year by African dance and drumming and opening act Rolly Gray and Sunfire.

"Rolly's old school, he's making it happen," says Block Dance coordinator and host Osei Chandler, remembering when the artist used to play Charleston in the '70s and '80s at Myskyn's Tavern. "And he opened in 1981 for Peter Tosh at the Gaillard."

The Block Dance will kick into high gear with the reggae stylings of Antigua and Barbuda native Causion (pictured above), who's toured throughout the U.S. and with some of the Caribbean's best artists, including Rita Marley, Third World, Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, and Judy Mowatt.

A forceful and charismatic performer, Causion is fully conscious of the social and political roots of his music's history. His lyrics are filled with appealing messages that blend reggae, soul, and pop, and his new album One Life To Live (JasFar Records) — featuring tracks like "Jah Is the Ruler," "Born to Be Dread," and "Slave Addiction" — has been called his best effort to date.

Chandler observes that Causion has played at the Block Dance before, as well as James Island County Park's Reggae Nights. "I'm looking forward to a very professional production. He's known as Antigua's Reggae Ambassador, and he takes that very seriously," Chandler says. "He's both a showman and an artist. It's certainly one of the more exciting Reggae Block Dances in a while." —Patrick Sharbaugh

Caribbean Street Parade and Reggae Block Dance Fri. Sept. 29, 7 p.m.-midnightFree U.S. Custom House Corner of Concord and S. Market streets

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The Elementals
Chunky art meets spiritually-charged elegance in a two-man show

The City's airy Waterfront Park gallery keeps things simple for its contribution to MOJA this year. Only two artists have been selected to reflect the diaspora, with functional blacksmithed art accompanying heavy-set non-representative mixed media work. So it's fortunate that Yaw Owusu Shangofemi and Jason Corder have enough versatility to keep this show interesting.

Like Johnny Depp, Corder favors France as a destination for sensitive artistic types; he's recently put down roots in Les Landes. He brings an Afrophile's heartfelt perspective to the gallery: He was trained by Ousseynou Sarr, a Senagalese painter of note, and blends West African techniques with the progressive aesthetics of abstract artist Mark Rothko, the raw simplicity of Philip Guston, and the mixed media experimentation of Scotland's Boyle Family.

Africa's a strong influence on Corder in other ways, too. Landscapes are represented in the sparse skyline of "Dielmo Village," bird's-eye views of farmland, and even worm's-eye views of underground chambers ("Serpentine.") They all include rich, dark, earthy colors with a predominance of browns and grays.

Corder has fun with a series that follows a couple from their 20s through to their 80s. Granted, this is an abstract-looking couple with barely discernible heads, but the artist still manages to capture the atmosphere surrounding a decaying pair as he adds more cracks and mold to each picture, peeling away the perfect veneer that hides the ugly truths of "The Couple At 20."

With materials like corn silk, sand, wood ash, and found objects at his disposal, Corder makes subtle comments with his art. "Africa Flag" incorporates a flat matchbox and pieces of a map and Arabic script; "Dielmo Village" includes a piece of packaging from a chain factory. Carefully segmenting many of his images with lines and curves, he challenges the viewer to make sense of his muddied ideas.

Yaw Owusu Shangofemi's work is more straightforward, if only because the titles of his work are less cryptic. Thirty years ago he apprentice with revered local blacktsmith Philip Simmons. Since then he's honed his skill as an ironwork sculptor, marrying utilitarian objects with more ritual concerns.

It's impossible to ignore his "Ogun Man," a larger-than-life figure made up of mild steel and a car part or two — this chrome warrior appears to have a Dodge hubcap for a breastplate. A mixed media offering has been made to this god of iron and war, and he's a powerful introduction to Shangofemi's worlds of Yoruba iconography.

His acknowledgement of the beliefs of the Yoruba, one of Africa's widest-ranging and most important groups, helps to elevate his handiwork to a more artistic level. But there's also fine craftsmanship on display, such as the fine serrations on the tip of an "Ochosi Bow and Arrow."

Useful art may be a contradiction in terms to some people, but here tables, a gate, and machetes can be ornate enough to be displayed and admired. Shangofemi continues to produce art that you can sit on, swing through, or use somehow; it's work that's easy to appreciate, whether or not it's hung in an art gallery.

Curator Ade Ofunniyin has successfully programmed a visual lesson in African culture and ideology. — Nick Smith

Forging Spirits • City Gallery at Waterfront Park 34 Prioleau St. On view through Sun. Nov. 19 Free 958-6484

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Straight-Up Soul
MOJA highlights some of the soul and R&B world's most elegant entertainers

As part of its music series, the MOJA Arts Festival presents "An Evening of Jazz Under the Stars With Nnenna Freelon" this Saturday at the beautiful Cistern on the CofC campus. Freelon is a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist with a sturdy, soulful voice and a smooth backing band. The music series continues next week with a special concert at the Family Circle Tennis Center on Daniel Island featuring crooning soul/pop vocalist Jeffrey Osborne and opening act Kem Owens (a.k.a. KEM).

Born in Miss. and based in Durham, N.C., Freelon has performed and toured with an impressive list of jazz and R&B artists — from Ray Charles and Ellis Marsalis to Al Jarreau and George Benson. Her earliest work drew comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey, and other jazz vocal greats.

On her latest album, however, she embraces perhaps the greatest female jazz singer of all time: Billie Holiday. Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday, her sixth album on the Concord label, pays a personalized tribute to Lady Day. The 15-song collection's 2005 release coincided with the 90th anniversary of Holiday's birth. It includes interpretations of such Holiday classics as "God Bless The Child," "Don't Explain," "Them There Eyes," "Strange Fruit," and "All of Me."

Appropriately, Freelon recently received the Billie Holiday Award from the prestigious Academie du Jazz and the Eubie Blake Award from the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute in Baltimore. Twice, she has been nominated for the Soul Train Lady of Soul Award.

The vocalist and her current touring band — Wayne Batchelor on acoustic, percussionist Beverly Botsford, drummer Kinah Boto, and pianist/horn player Brandon McCune — perform under the stars in an elegant setting on Saturday. Opening act Soulfood Jazz includes musicians Dwayne J.L. Johnson Jr. & Otis Wright. —T. Ballard Lesemann

Nnenna Freelon Sat. Sept. 30, 8 p.m. $20 The Cistern 66 George St. 554-6060 www.mojafestival.com

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Popular singer/songwriter Jeffrey Osborne — a soulful baritone whose specialty is romantic ballads — headlines the MOJA event at Family Circle Tennis Center on Sat. Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. Osborne, a native of Providence, R.I., first worked in the music biz as a singer and percussionist in a funk/soul group called Love Men Ltd (a.k.a. L.T.D.) in the late '60s and early '70s before embarking on a successful solo career — a three-decade jaunt highlighted by five gold and platinum albums.

Osborne's early works include Stay With Me Tonight and Only Human. His biggest breakthrough to the pop and R&B charts came in 1982 off an album of duets he recorded with singer James Ingram. "On the Wings of Love," from his self-tilted solo debut, cracked the Top 30 that year and remains one of most popular tunes among fans. 1986's "You Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song)" and the Burt Bacharach-penned "Love Power," sung as a duet with Dionne Warwick, were massive hits for Osborne in the '80s as well.

Osborne's latest album, From the Soul, features a straight-ahead, typically well-polished set of renditions of such soul and pop classics as Whitney Houston's "All at Once," Gamble/Huff's "Close the Door," Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Barbara Mason's "Yes I'm Ready," Teddy Pendergrass' "Close the Door," and Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me Off My Feet."

Sharing the stage with Osborne at Daniel Island's Family Circle Stadium on Sat. Oct. 7 is Detroit-based singer KEM (born Kem Owens), who produced and arranged two critically-acclaimed albums for the Motown label. His latest collection, Album II, showcases his smooth blend of jazzy funk, hip-hop, and modern R&B. —T. Ballard Lesemann

Jeffrey Osborne Sat. Oct. 7, 8 p.m. $35/VIP seating, $25/general admission Family Circle Tennis Center 161 Seven Farms Dr. 554-6060 www.mojafestival.com


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