The project includes interviews with over 50 individuals and draws directly from a number of surviving cassettes that have been kindly donated towards an archive of cassette tape messages held at the Bishopsgate Institute, London. The project focuses on Potwari primarily because the majority of cassettes acquired and the majority of the interviews undertaken have been in this language, but also because it is solely a spoken language and its capture on cassette tape provides some insights into the traditions of an oral culture.
Cassette tapes were developed by the Dutch technology company Phillips in 1963 originally for dictation machines, but with rapid improvements in audio fidelity, they became hugely popular as a format for pre-recorded music. They were also available as ‘blank’ tapes, which allowed for personalised home recordings of music (whether that was from the owner’s records or music from the radio). This spawned ‘mixtape’ culture, and a subsequent alarmist reaction by the music industry (a standout slogan being “Home Taping is Killing Music”). This home recording functionality of cassette recorders prompted many members of the British-Pakistani community to also use them as an audio messaging system to communicate with their relatives abroad. Tapes were relatively cheap, re-recordable, and in many instances provided a solution to problems with literacy, in particular for many women from a lower socio-economic background who were unable to read or write letters that would have been penned in Urdu. Cassettes allowed them to record messages in their own Potwari language, allowing for their voices to be heard directly and literally.
Messages were recorded on a variety of tape lengths (the most commonly used being the ‘C60’ allowing 30 minutes of audio to be recorded per side) and the cassettes were sent between families either via the postal system or they would be delivered by hand in the relatively rare instance when a family member or a trusted friend would be visiting from abroad. Cassettes would be listened to individually or collectively by the intended receivers, with messages being recorded and returned in a similar way. By the late 1980s however, wider technological advances in both music distribution and tele-communications made the use of tapes obsolete, and the use of cassettes as a system for messages died down.
Surviving ‘tape letter’ cassettes are quite rare as many of the cassettes that were intended for safe-keeping by older members of the community were re-recorded over by younger family members glad to have the opportunity of a free cassette. Multiple recordings on the same cassette, with the subsequent degradation in audio quality, meant that many were unlistenable and also discarded. Despite the rarity, some cassettes do exist, and the TAPE LETTERS project has sourced a number of these surviving cassettes allowing an insight into this practice of recording messages on magnetic tape.
Some cassettes were intended for individual listening, and others for group listening. Some contained intimate messages between lovers, some contained messages between parents and their sons or daughters. Some were recorded in secret with the intention of proving culpability and used as evidence, some contained domestic chatter on the weather and an unfamiliar climate. 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.