#6 Cassette Letters with
September 7th, 2020
In this episode researcher and creative producer Fozia Ismail explores the use of cassette tape letters in the Somali Community during migration. Through conversations with other artists, archivists and musicians we learn about the emergence of tape, its use by different diaspora communities to send messages to family and friends in other countries, and the ethical questions raised on how these remaining tapes are preserved and used today.
Image: Dhaqan Collective: Camel Meat and Cassette Tapes Launch, Paul Samuel White, 2020
Dhaqan Collective: Camel Meat and Tapes Launch, Paul Samuel White, 2020
In this episode researcher and creative producer Fozia Ismail explores the use of cassette tapes in the Somali Community during migration. Through conversations with other artists, archivists and musicians we learn about the emergence of tape, its use by different diaspora communities to send messages to families in other countries, and the ethical questions raised on how these remaining tapes are preserved and used today.
Growing up in the UK, Fozia remembers her family recording on cassette tapes and sending them to relatives abroad. Some of these tapes she later found still remain today, offering a rich and important snapshot of Somali oral tradition and culture before and after the onset of the civil war.
Camel Meat and Tapes is a research project run by The Dhaqan Collective, a feminist art collective of Somali women, including Fozia, Asmaa Jama and Ayan Cilmi. The Dhaqan Collective aims to work with and preserve the stories these tapes contain and centre the voices of womxn and elders in their Somali community. They discovered almost all Somali families can recount recording messages, poems and stories onto the cassette tapes. Stories that ranged from the mundane activities of everyday life up to intimate messages between lovers.
The reason the cassette tape became so popular with the Somali diaspora people was because it was relatively cheap and compact. Nomadic families could carry tapes and a recorder without too much hassle and it also overcame the barrier of literacy for many people from a lower socio-economic background.
During their research the Dhaqan Collective realised that this practice of tape letters was not unique to Somali people and in fact shared across other communities on the African and Asian continents. Wajid Yaseen is an artist and director of the sound art research cooperative Modus Arts. Wajid who grew up in Manchester, was interested in working with recordings of his father’s voice who would record traditional hymns onto cassette tapes. He soon realised though when going through the tapes that he was actually present when his family recorded messages for relatives abroad. This triggered Wajid to go searching for more of these tapes from other families in the British-Pakistani diaspora and investigate this significant piece of their identity which would later become Tape Letters.
Tape Letters is an interdisciplinary research project and exhibition that presents the personal and domestic histories of members of the Pothwari-speaking British-Pakistani community from audio messages sent via cassette tapes. The team collected first-hand interviews from people who sent, received and experienced the tape letters between 1960- 80’s and analysed a number of surviving cassettes.
As Wajid speaks about the cassettes “They all contain deeply human stories, and these ‘tape letters’ can be considered significant artefacts both as objects and as aural moments in a crucial time for the migrant Potwari-speaking community. They were recorded “in the moment, and of the moment” and are fascinating sonographic snapshots, providing an unvarnished insight into private familial spheres of life at the time”.
When listening back to the tapes, the team also encountered many ethical issues, something that digital archivist Ibrahim Hirsi is very passionate about and is actively challenging behaviours and practice in the preservation of the material. Crate digging is form a cultural archeology and people comb record stores, flea markets, garage sales, charity shops to find rare vinyl records or cassettes. Ibrahim however offers an insight into the overlooked malpractice of some crate diggers who claim to discover forgotten, exotic music and package it for a new western audience. The artists whose life’s work feature on these re-releases however are unlikely to reap actual benefit from this new audience.
Recognising this lack of care in the industry Ibrahim founded Waaberi Phone to change the conversation and support Somali artists in taking ownership over their music and intellectual property. Championing the revival and development of Somali Arts, Waaberi Records re-releases Somali music in full consultation with the artist and engages younger Somalis diasporas about their culture, art and language.
On the total other end of the tape spectrum we spoke to Berlin- based Hainbach, an electronic music composer and performer who experiments with sounds on modular synths, tape and test equipment. Through his YouTube channel Hainbach has become renowned for his manipulation of tape and particularly “Destruction Loops”. Using tape machines with tape loops that contained recordings of hateful comments from youtube channels he would run them across any sharp or abrasive objects including a scalpel, a boxcutter, sandpaper and a serrated bread knife. Over time the magnetic dust on the tape that contained the information was scraped from the plastic and comments just broke apart into noise and static.
Everyone instantly recognises the tape hiss, the click and whir when in a cassette player. Despite all its limitations the analog medium has featured a resurgence in popular culture as it embodies something human, something that the digital just can’t, a lifespan. And just as muqmad (preserved camel meat) had multiple functions for nomadic Somali people the cassette tapes have become the unexpected preserve of oral traditions and culture.
About Fozia Ismail
Fozia Ismail, scholar, cook and founder of Arawelo Eats, a platform for exploring politics, identity and colonialism through East African food. She has designed and delivered workshops/presentations for organisations such as Keep It Complex, Serpentine Gallery, Jerwood Project Space, Tate Modern, Museum of London, National Trust -Colonial Countryside Project, Oxford Cultural Collective, Courtauld Art Institute, and is Bristol City Fellow for Arnolfini Contemporary Art Centre. Her work has been published by Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery 2017 and 2019. She is also one third of the Dhaqan Collective, a Somali art collective based in Bristol.