Lets Make Some Noise: Axe and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music

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  1. Let's Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music
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  3. How a religion and its sacred energy animated Brazilian musical creation

Some terreiros hang a white flag or scarf from a pole or around a tree to indicate that a terreiro is in the vicinity. Dried coconut leaves are hung in the doors and windows to ward off evil forces. Although in most terreiros ceremonies are conducted in private, on a few occasions some do allow media coverage, for example, during the visit of an elected official. In , during my initial study of the terreiros, I visited the Gantois, one of the oldest terreiros in Salvador. The local media were allowed to interview some older practitioners with television cameras present about the grave illness of their leader and the succession process to elect a new leader.

Members take pride in their chronological wall displays of photos of all past officials, along with items such as animal horns and skins, religious pictures, and crucifixes. In addition, some terreiros have special altars that hold straw baskets where practitioners deposit money as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. The interior of most terreiros is distinct, with a square or star-shaped stone marker the entoto in the middle of the floor.

At various times during the ceremonies, purified water from the vases is sprinkled on the floor in this area. The secondary leaders are often expected to assume a primary role after the death of the leader. Leadership is established in various ways, including proprietary ownership, heredity, seniority, or a combination of all three. Some leaders establish small houses of worship within the confines of their own homes. The death of a leader is a solemn experience. Other local terreiros may pay their respects to the deceased by refraining from holding ceremonies and silencing various types of music for a given time.

These practitioners symbolically experience two births, one by earthly and one by spiritual parents. One practitioner described his initiation as a solemn experience. After this she was more receptive to the initiation of her son, allowing him to begin the process when he was fifteen years old.

Female and male initiates constantly experience spirit possession.

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They continue to experience spirit possession but their movements and emotional behavior are childlike. The initiates then entered a quiet, solemn state with their eyes closed. Following this was a hearty welcome from the community and the spiritual guardians. The second time that the new initiates entered the room, their heads were covered with feathers and they went through the ceremonial process again.

Ogans are also required to undergo an initiation that lasts approximately twenty-one days to one month. Ogans also play administrative roles: Many practitioners and families live on the grounds of this terreiro. The room where the ceremony was held was large enough to hold approximately five hundred people.

During the ceremony, the entire floor of the sanctum was covered with sacred leaves. Several chairs were placed in the front of the room. On opposite sides of the room was special seating for other officials of the terreiro. For ceremonial purposes, men and women in the audience were not allowed to sit in the same areas. Preparations for the ceremony began long before the start time of 7: Chickens and goats were prepared for sacrifice, special foods were cooked, participants were dressed, and the musicians were rehearsed.

The leader purified the room with pemba, a powdery substance that was blown over the room and the musical instruments. Once the ceremony began, it lasted until the next day. The first part of the ceremony began with a procession of initiates that lasted approximately forty minutes. While all this was going on, the initiates experienced spirit possession and were assisted by the ekede. When a female initiate went into possession, the ekede removed her scarf and wrapped it around her head, then placed a special white garment around her waist.

When a male initiate went into possession, his shirt was removed and a white scarf was wrapped tightly around his upper torso. While in possession, jewelry and shoes were also removed. This was all done to ensure that the initiates remained neatly dressed and poised throughout the rituals and spirit possession. People in the audience again were allowed to gather in the sacred area of the room, this time to encircle themselves with the cloth. After the ritual the initiates, dressed in elaborate clothing, entered the room holding sacred objects such as mirrors, swords, amulets, bows, and arrows.

Flowers were given to each initiate as they danced. As in other ceremonies, the initiates danced. In other ceremonies she sat in her special chair and the initiates passed by her, paying homage by kneeling in a prayerlike position. The initiates immediately stopped dancing and fell to the floor in a circle, bowing their heads and not moving from this position.

Special foods such as fruit, vegetables, beer, and nuts were prepared for the Native American spirits and placed in a special area of the terreiro, where it remained for several days and was then deposited in the woods. Another part of the ceremony involved smoking large cigars charutos and drinking beer.

Another remedy was rubbing leaves from special trees on the body of the sick. The choreographic movements were similar to samba, with fast movements from the feet and hips. One of the most unusual aspects of the celebration was that initiates often encouraged participants seated in the audience to participate in the dancing. In one, when the initiates experienced possession they were possessed by Marujo, a spirit that manifested himself as a drunken sailor who smoked excessively.

Initiates possessed by Marujo stumble in a drunken manner. A mediating spirit named Martin, often depicted as a bird, descends as an agent of Marujo to control the drunken manner exhibited by initiates. Practitioners responded in various ways. Some practitioners believed they were vessels and sources of encouragement in the community and terreiro.

In most terreiros the ritual protocol was very specific for all ceremonies. The sacrifices were most often done in private before the ceremony commenced. Many ceremonies were similar to what I witnessed in West Africa in that there was an active engagement with the spiritual world that culminated with singing, drumming, dancing, and heightened spirit possession. In many terreiros, spirit possession was distinctive. Initiated practitioners in possession often shivered, moaned, screamed, and made contorted movements.

Although their bodies and arm movements moved rapidly, they never seemed to bump into or touch any other person. On occasion some terreiros celebrated both West African and Congo-Angolan spirits. Practitioners described that the initiated experience spirit possession in different ways. But while in possession by a Congo-Angolan spirit, the initiate normally places the hands on the right side of the body as they sway back and forth. This is why in many terreiros noninitiates are encouraged to participate in ceremonies by singing, clapping, and encouraging the initiates.

In essence music singing and drumming and dance bridge the sacred and secular worlds.


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These Africans attempted to make sense of a colonial environment and maintain a sense of their historical consciousness and cultural values by re-creating aspects of their religious and artistic expressions. Within this urban context certain powerful elite and social players involved in politics, local authority, religious settings, and social groups became involved in perpetuating ideological perceptions about the religion.

All of this has occurred over different periods of time in Brazilian history. This is because in the city blacks interact in such a way as to perpetuate their African legacy. Now these rituals in many instances are performed in secular settings such as by many Carnival organizations in Salvador within the context of public annual festivals. They are also displayed in museums and shopping malls, on travel brochures, and on the Internet.

Figa, a good luck charm constructed to resemble a clenched fist with the thumb extended between the index and middle fingers, is a symbol that demonstrates how African religion and culture have influenced Brazil. Although this symbol originated in Afro-Brazilian religion, it has become popular with many Brazilians. Because it is one of the adornments that people wear around their necks, merchants in tourist shops in many areas of Brazil sell woodcarvings of the figa.

Brazil is a country that has celebrated miscegenation and whitening and has often discouraged the establishment of social organizations based on racial identities. Governmental and legal sectors of cities such as Salvador and Rio de Janeiro tended to preserve the conservative structures of the Catholic Church. Local authorities responded to the practice of this religion with harsh and prejudicial treatment. However, under the Vargas regime —45 , the ideologies of national identity and the New State Estado Novo began to embrace AfroBrazilians and mulattos as distinctive facets of Brazilian society and culture.

Many terreiros I visited displayed their official certificates of membership on the wall along with other important religious memorabilia. In the s Umbanda, a popular syncretic religion that was created in Brazil, attracted some Brazilian whites in Rio de Janeiro and in other parts of Brazil. Umbanda music shows stylistic changes that result from the permeation of nationalistic values in regional and urban cultural settings.

The music and dance is highly influenced by urban samba. This often resulted in some terreiros relocating to the outskirts of the city and holding ceremonies late at night to avoid being confronted by local authorities. The religion was transformed into a valued cultural heritage, supported by the church and state. The typical baiana dress has become a nationalist and folkloric costume, especially during festivities such as the annual Carnival celebration.

There is also a sacred element in this celebration, most often a major parade unit comprised of the alas das baianas: In Salvador nonpractitioners often wear the costume of the baiana. For example, women who may not be practitioners sell merchandise foods, trinkets on the streets or work as local tour guides and greeters wearing the costume as a type of work uniform.

During many of the local festivals some males may also dress as a baiana: Most of the women dress in their usual laced white garments and elaborate headdresses. The syncretism of Catholicism and African religion is evident. As the mass commences the baianas often participate in procession and dance behind a man, also dressed in white, who carries a large crucifix.

During the procession, church bells constantly ring and crowds cheer. The thousands of people who attend the procession to the Bonfim Church also enjoy secular activities—drinking, eating, dancing, and musical performances by local Carnival organizations. After this, the entire crowd is allowed to approach the steps and tie fita ribbons to the door of the church. Other interesting responses I received from some young Afro-Brazilian men nonpractitioners associated the baiana with the aesthetics of local identity and Afro-Brazilian culture baianidade as something of beauty beleza and with the typical black woman from the Salvador region.

Some of the larger ones have web pages that describe history, sacred rituals, and symbols to locals and tourists. Moreover, many terreiros profit by allowing tourists and the local media to visit and attend special ceremonies. Some tourist agencies in Salvador maintain a list of weekly celebrations that allow tourists to observe ceremonies for a nominal fee. The money received aids in the maintenance of the terreiro. I asked several practitioners for their opinions about allowing tourists to attend ceremonies, and received a wide range of opinions.

It was much more looked at as a religion. Salvador was a good land for the Africans. It was similar to where the slaves came from. It was marginalized by the slave owner and the white society. But for the Africans, this was their belief system. Now it is for everyone. This is not a problem for me. If they conduct themselves with respect during the ceremony, that makes me feel good. Now people feel they must act a certain way to be accepted in Salvador.

Now, tourists come into terreiros with ideas of what they think the religion is or should be. I believe that if they come to see a ceremony, they should come in with an open mind. However, I must emphasize that there are numerous terreiros that do not allow tourists and prefer to maintain the privacy of their specific ceremonies. In recent decades groups of young Afro-Brazilians have been inspired by black activism and the way African Americans, Africans, and other African diasporic areas have assigned symbolic meaning to various African-influenced religions, popular music styles, and social movements.

The organization normally serves children and teenagers mostly from low-income Afro-Brazilian families. Artistic creativity is envisioned as a spiritual activity through which individuals can examine the experience, quality, and meaning of life. I also asked several practitioners about their opinions of the social organizations that are attempting to empower young Afro-Brazilians with educational skills. One prominent leader who shared her sentiments was Edna Portela Oliveira Silva, sixty-three. Silva felt strongly that her job as a leader was not only to preside over rituals and worship, but also to teach and train young practitioners.

Silva noted that some young practitioners are being influenced by their experiences outside of the terreiro, especially through social organizations. Moreover, she felt that younger practitioners had changed everything, and that worship was much different from when she was a girl. Although many things had changed since Silva was a young girl, she did express that young people in her community needed to be inspired to achieve high goals in life.

For years she had constantly observed young people without any types of goals, many from low-income families who could not afford a proper education. Our children are affected by what happens in our community. If we cannot provide for our children then they will not have a future. Things have changed since I was a girl. When I was a girl, most young people would accept their situation. But now young people are becoming more aware of their surroundings and want more out of life.

So I think that if young Afro-Brazilians can continue to respect the religion and the ancestors they will have much success in life. In many Brazilian cities, billboards and advertisements e. In some illustrations ancestral spirits are depicted as having fair skin textures, straight hair, and blue eyes; in others as having dark skin textures, curly hair, and with more pronounced African features; or as having Native American physical characteristics. Also, similar to several West African popular musicians e. When music is performed practitioners often lift their hands to orun, the world of the ancestors, bow in reverence to the sacred musical instruments, or experience spirit possession.

For many practitioners music validates their religious experiences and enables them to reconnect, speak, and communicate with ancestral spirits. Through music practitioners communicate with the divine, give praise and thanks, petition for general or specific blessings, appease, atone, acknowledge, and celebrate the existence of the divine in their lives.

The movements may be fast, slow, or contorted; they may include shuffling, twirling, and circular motions; they may represent activities such as shooting a bow and arrow, galloping, sweeping, and holding special sacred objects such as mirrors, amulets, or whips. As the intensity and tempo of the music increases, galloping motions executed by the dancer become accelerated.

Other movements may involve simple circular motions. For the initiates—those chosen to communicate with the spiritual world— the power of music is emphasized at all intervals of the initiation process. Moreover, many expressed that the ceremonies would not be complete, and communicating with the spiritual world would not be achieved, without music. The music serves as a formal invitation to members of the community, who are welcome if they abide by the integrity of the ceremony. During the ceremonies I observed, the music seemed to mediate between different social classes so that all practitioners who attended the ceremonies in some way contributed to the sacredness of the ceremony.

As some terreiros are small in size, occasionally practitioners must stand outside and observe the ceremonies from an open door or window; but this is not usually a deterrent, as the music can be heard for several blocks. On several occasions I observed practitioners standing in the rain. This inconvenience did not seem to matter once the music began.

Some practitioners believed that even the sound of the music attracts good fortune and prosperity, and were inspired to donate money to the terreiro as a symbol of their gratitude. What is interesting about this comment is that the practitioner who offered it is a musician in his local terreiro.

Let's Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music

For example, one practitioner explained that sometimes when she attends ceremonies in the terreiro she may not be in a positive mood because of the problems e. In the terreiro it can influence a sense of historical memory of African cultural traditions. It is another form of reinventing a sacred landscape that for Africans in Brazil is crucial for venerating the ancestral spirits.

Because they are part of the community, these instruments are also endowed with human characteristics such as male or female, happy or sad, hungry or satiated, dressed or undressed. They can also evoke good or bad spirits. The atabaques vary in size and shape; each size has a symbolic significance. The sounds of the rum, the mother instrument, enliven the spiritual world.

Other names given the instruments are ngoma drums and gan bell. When I asked why the drums are named, most practitioners did not know the answer, but indicated that the tradition of naming instruments had existed for many centuries. During ceremonies, the instrument is played by hitting the two pieces together as if clapping; the sound produced is similar to a very thin brass cymbal. Because instruments are so significant, special craftsmen construct them.

Each terreiro has specific rituals for the construction of musical instruments using materials such as sacrificial animal skins. One practitioner said that in his local terreiro, instruments are constructed by craftsmen known as tanoeiros atabaque makers. Their task is to construct the frame of an atabaque, which normally takes a day to make. Thus, when a terreiro is established, a special offering must be made to the musical instruments.

Herskovits indicated that special power is transmitted through sacred offerings of blood, palm oil, honey, and holy water that are sprinkled on the instruments. This involves not only a baptism but also occasionally naming of the instruments atabaques and annual feeding to prolong and assure the power received at the baptismal ceremony. Even the skins of animals that are used for drumheads are considered sacred and are also sprinkled with pemba. After any given ceremony, practitioners cover them to protect them from evil forces within the confines of the terreiro.

When the ceremonies commence, most practitioners believe that, when a musician is performing, the instruments are being fed and are enlivened. For any given ceremony, the selection of specific repertoire to be performed is chosen by the leader in consultation with the musicians. Musicians produce these speechlike qualities with a variety of timbres, techniques, nuances, and dynamics.

Spirit possession also seems to respond to various rhythmic tempi and colorful dynamics. The rhythms are a symbolic affirmation of the power of the music. In ceremonies, the music constantly speeds up and slows down. These shifts in momentum accentuate and punctuate the rhythmic sensations. Most practitioners associate the speeding-up sensation and faster rhythm tempi with spirit possession while the slower ones are often associated with a sense of calm, beauty, and tranquility. The atabaques are played with open palms in the Congo-Angola drumming style and produce a variety of percussive sounds.

The complexities of both rhythms are mainly in the rum and rumpi drum parts. In the execution of this particular rhythm the musicians employ different techniques such as accenting the first beat of the measure followed by a weaker accentuation on the second beat with what sounds similar to a staccato. The rumpi, the medium-sized atabaque, plays a basic rhythm called markings and gives distinct accentuations.

In many of the terreiros I observed practitioners employing several techniques in the performance of the songs. These techniques included call-andresponse singing and speechlike chanting of certain Yoruba words. In many of the terreiros the ceremonies began with avaninha or bravum, rhythms that served as a call or summons during which the initiates entered the sanctum in procession.

The atabaques then entered with sounds and nuances integrated with mixtures of call and response, rhythmic dialogues, and the overlapping conversations of voices and dancers. Once the ceremony began the music was continuous, pausing only to change from one song or drum rhythm to the next.

In many ceremonies each song began with a verse sung by a leader, bell player, or a special soloist. The leader often ornamented the verse with what sounded like semi-spoken dialogue incorporated into the melody. After the verse was sung, the leader sometimes made symbolic hand and arm gestures to the audience and the initiates, placing his hands on or near his heart or on top of his head.

The verse was normally answered by a chorus composed of the initiates, who were also dancing, and by practitioners in the audience, who contributed intensity of the music by clapping, singing, and cheering. In the performance of songs the musicality was not static. Instead, to add drama and contour to the music, a lead singer often used various vocal techniques such as approaching pitches in stepwise motions and or leaps and bending and flattening different pitches.

Because of the constant repetition of text, many of the songs seemed longer.

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However, although there was much repetition many of the songs seemed to follow a format of a phrase and cadencelike structure in binary AB form. The first part of the phrase A section was the verse sung by the leader and this was followed by the response B section sung by the initiates that ended the phrase and cadence. The verse A section that was performed by a leader bell player, special vocalist, etc. The response by the initiates B section often consisted of more textual material that was intended to give thanks, appease, or a prayer petition. When the leader repeated the verse, the singing embellished on certain words and pitches as follows: Verse A section performed by the Leader: Verse A section embellished by the Leader: Once they reached possession, the singing often ceased.

Instead of singing, noninitiated participants often continued to clap and cheer the possessed initiates. When spirit possession ended, the tempo decreased and the singing recommenced. In most of the terreiros, Yoruba was incorporated into the ceremonies as the liturgical language.


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Yoruba is a tonal language with three level tones: High, Low, and Medium. The complexity in this language is that every syllable must have at least one tone. I must emphasize that, although many practitioners are able to sing or speak some phrases in Yoruba, many are not able to give a literal translation of the song lyrics. I believe that noninitiated practitioners the audience serve as active participants and contribute to the solemnity of the music.

This is why they are encouraged to participate in ceremonies by singing, clapping, and encouraging the initiates. In many of the terreiros the older practitioners attempted to pass on the tradition of music to the younger generation. However, the older practitioners expressed concern and have noticed that the younger people are not as enthusiastic about spending time learning to sing songs in Yoruba; they prefer to sing them in Portuguese, which has made the older practitioners unhappy. They felt that the religion should not control their entire lives.

Young people in Brazil when they express their Afro-Brazilian identity, think they should not be criticized for what they think or believe outside of the terreiro. If a young person does not know how to sing a song in Yoruba, this does not mean he or she is less religious or appreciative of the African heritage than the practitioners that are knowledgeable of Yoruba. This type of criticism has discouraged some of the young practitioners.

It holds a symbolic power linked to the construction and articulation of local identity and the social and political philosophies of Negritude. Its moderate tempo is well suited for marchlike processions and conveys a sense of peace, love, tranquility, and stability that many local groups have come to appropriate in popular culture. The first meaning is the one that interests us here. In many ways they are the offspring of the irmandades, Catholic lay brotherhoods formed in Salvador in the seventeenth century to help perpetuate African traditions.

Voluntary and mainly organized along social, racial, and ethnic lines, many of these groups also functioned as both social clubs and mutual aid societies. These groups dressed in African-style clothes and celebrated African themes. Several of his friends had become members and this also influenced De Souza to seek membership. This decline came in a decade in Brazilian history when both national and local sectors of the society were affected by the coup that brought a military regime to power and resulted in various types of governmental restrictions.

Artists such as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were active during this time and were proponents against racial inequality and social injustice that resulted in several years of exile from Brazil. Many members of Filhos de Gandhi expressed that Gil was a leader and hero in the community: Gil was elevated to one of the highest-ranking officials in the Filhos de Gandhi, and he often participates in the processions.

Filhos de Gandhi is an organization of inclusion geared to membership of the old and young and members of different social classes. The organization reveres noted figures that they regard as having made a contribution to world peace such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Bob Marley, and many others. The observance is normally held in the major square of the Pelourinho district near their headquarters.

How a religion and its sacred energy animated Brazilian musical creation

After several songs are sung and prayers are given, sacred liquids and approximately three bowls of manioc flour are deposited on the square. Depending on the festivities, Filhos de Gandhi participants can range from approximately a thousand to almost ten thousand members. In processions some members ride upon vehicles designed to resemble elephants or camels, while others carry replicas of goats on their shoulders as they dance and sing.


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Still others march in the processions carrying live white doves or throw white corn to the crowds. The imagery of the elephant and camel are symbolic and representative of important animals associated with oriental culture. The atabaque and shekere players, who maintain a constant rhythmic flow and improvise around the vibrant timeline, may also number over one hundred. Other musicians in the ensemble then enter playing the various beaded gourd rattles shekeres , striking the base or the beads attached to the gourds.

The largest atabaque rum usually improvises. Most players strap the atabaques around the waist or shoulder while the instrument is being played. Similarly, there is a constant repetition of text, and many of the songs follow a format of a phrase and cadencelike structure in binary AB form: Singers may also embellish and accent certain words and pitches. One of the major differences is that Filhos de Gandhi performances often include fanfares played on valveless trumpets at different intervals in the music.

Also, whistle blasts mark the beginnings and endings of musical phrases. In addition to performing in public festivals, Filhos de Gandhi has become a popular tourist and community attraction. Although admission to this weekly event is free, the organization earns proceeds through the sale of trinkets, recordings, and various types of foods and beverages. On most Sundays the crowds are so massive there is standing room only. The musical ensemble, comprised of approximately twelve musicians playing the traditional atabaques, bells, rattles, and trumpets, is usually seated on a stage.

To see the members of Filhos de Gandhi during local festivities is a memorable experience. Moraes Moreira, a singer-guitarist whose career in popular music cannot be overstated, was one of the most popular musicians of the frevo baiano in the s. In the late s and s, as Afro-Brazilian popular music emerged, he achieved fame as a member of the group Novo Baianos New Bahians.

The instrumentation is extensive, with an array of instruments that include congas, timbales, drums, trumpets, trombones, surdos, electronic keyboards, and saxophones. The song also incorporates digitized sounds. For him, singers such as James Brown, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin were particularly inspiring during the military coup and dictatorship in Brazil in the s and s. Brown believes that Brazilian music was influenced by African American music, and vice versa. I think that all these rhythms—dance, jingle—are very similar to what we have been doing in Brazil.

He also played various percussion instruments in a popular music group with two other musicians, a German guitarist and a Brazilian vocalist. The group mainly performed blues; asked why they chose this style, Carlos responded that samba, blues, funk, reggae, and rock were all connected and derived from African music.

For Carlos this made many popular styles easy for him to perform. Depending on the song style e. Lula Almeida, thirty-two, was a popular musician who performed regularly in Salvador and in Los Angeles, California. Performing for audiences in the two cities presented different experiences. But in Los Angeles he performed mainly in local clubs with smaller audiences.

Let's make some noise: University Press of Mississippi, c Language English View all editions Prev Next edition 4 of 4. Check copyright status Cite this Title Let's make some noise: Author Henry, Clarence Bernard. Physical Description xi, p. Subjects Popular music -- Brazil -- African influences. Summary "Clarence Bernard Henry's book is a culmination of several years of field research on sacred and secular influences of ase, the West African Yoruba concept that spread to Brazil and throughout the African Diaspora.

Ase is imagined as power and creative energy bestowed upon human beings by ancestral spirits acting as guardians. In Brazil, the West African Yoruba concept of ase is known as axe and has been reinvented, transmitted, and nurtured in Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion that is practiced in Salvador, Bahia. Featuring interviews with practitioners and local musicians, the book explains how many Brazilian popular music styles such as samba, bossa nova, samba-reggae, ijexa, and axe have musical and stylistic elements that stem from Afro-Brazilian religion.

The book also discusses how young Afro-Brazilians combine Candomble religious music with African American music such as blues, jazz, gospel, soul, funk, and rap. I'm black and I'm proud: Product details Format Paperback pages Dimensions x x Looking for beautiful books? Visit our Beautiful Books page and find lovely books for kids, photography lovers and more.

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