DUBAI: When the artist, producer and audio-visual archivist Mark Gergis DJs, he does so with three cassette decks. Not with turntables, not with controllers, but with one small portable cassette deck and two tape consoles. “It’s an interesting, clunky sort of way to DJ,” he admits, “but it seems to be in demand. I think people like to see that kind of tactile engagement with the technology.”
Cassettes have been a part of Gergis’ life for as long as he can remember. As a child he loved the sounds they brought into his family’s home, and by the time he was four or five he was operating the family deck. He would record his family and friends, experiment with audio, and perform radio plays with his brother.
“It was a very normal part of our lives and when I was a teenager it was just the best way to record songs off the radio or put ideas down on tape,” he says. “It was economical. I used to carry a portable cassette deck wherever I went in the Eighties and we knew what the format was and what its limitations were. We all knew it was prone to extra noise and had its sonic limitations, but it was solid.”
Now an increasing number of people across the world are embracing the medium’s old-school charm. Like vinyl before it, the humble cassette tape is in the midst of a resurgence, with cassettes being produced and released at higher rates every year. In the UK, over 185,000 tapes were sold in 2021, up 19 percent on the previous year, according to the British Phonographic Industry. That figure represents the highest recorded sales since 2003, as everyone from Billie Eilish to Bicep engages with the medium.
The Middle East has been a part of this revival for a number of years. The Bastakiya Tapes, a subsidy of Bedouin Records, has been issuing cassettes since it was founded in 2015, while the Dubai-based band WYWY re-released their EP “Within You Without You” at the tail end of last year. Palestinian online radio station Radio Alhara is also rolling out a limited-edition tape presenting the Damos Room, and Shadi Megallaa, the owner of The Flip Side record store in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, has previously delved into cassettes through his GYPS label.
Why though? There are a number of reasons, and nostalgia is high up the list.
“It brings back everything from our childhood, when our parents used to have big collections of cassette tapes,” says Xtianne Alvarez, one half of WYWY. She remembers manually rewinding, loading or flipping tapes, their lyric sheets, their artwork, and “the unique warm analog sounds”.
“I remember skipping school lunch to save money to buy cassette tapes,” adds Mckie Alvarez, the other half of WYWY. “The best part was reading the credits — the feeling and the packaging while listening to it. I remember spending my time in a music store after class and I’d stay for hours just browsing tapes to discover new music.”
This type of nostalgia can be extremely powerful, even for musicians such as Gergis, who has dedicated a large chunk of his life to the creation of the Syrian Cassette Archives. Cassettes were easy, affordable and functional, he says. You could record your own music, create audio letters to friends and family, and trade them. But when the popularity of cassettes waned, beginning with the arrival of CDs, “we lost that warmth and durability that tape had”, says Gergis. This partly explains the allure of cassettes, with their rounder, less perfect sound.
But their revival should also be viewed through the prism of DJ, reissue, and crate-digging culture, which has accelerated over the course of the past decade or so and has, to date, been largely concentrated on vinyl. Just as they did in their heyday, cassettes offer a cheaper alternative to vinyl for those younger generations looking for connectivity beyond the digital world.
“There’ll always be a sort of nostalgia and trendy fetishization, and at first this resurgence felt like it might be just that,” says Gergis. “But I think there’s a newfound love for it that goes beyond the trend. And maybe it has to do with being inundated with intangible media. People who grew up more in the digital age have realized there’s something important about tactile formats.”
This desire for tangible media has led to a huge increase in the volume of vinyl being pressed, as well as serious hikes in price. It has also led to certain phenomena, says Salem Rashid, the founder of Bedouin Records, which released a mixtape by Tokyo-based Mars89 in December. “Most people nowadays buy cassettes without even listening to them,” he says. “I’ve been (in) people’s homes and they have collections but they don’t have a tape player. But they like to support independent artists or bands in this way, and what’s happening is everyone can just self-release on cassette.
“A lot of artists just want to put their demo out there, and cassettes allow people to do that. They can just dub the whole thing at home. That’s why a lot of people, including us, are approaching it this way. We’ll still put out tapes because vinyl has gone insane, both in terms of prices and waiting times from pressing plants.”
Rashid released his first cassettes out of a desire to “curate a type of sound and visual that I don’t see out there.” That meant an atmospheric, ambient sound for The Bastakiya Tapes. With more releases on the horizon, he is focusing on releasing music that can just be left to run. “It’s more about someone putting on a tape and having it play, rather than focussing on whether its this album by this artist.”
For archivists such as Gergis, there is also an historical element to collecting cassettes. The material that comprises the Syrian Cassette Archives is broad — music by Syrian Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Iraqis and Armenians. It includes recordings of live concerts, studio albums, classical Arab music, and religious, patriotic and children’s music. And many of them are unique.
For example, a lot of the shaabi tapes Gergis bought during his many trips to Syria had very short shelf lives. They weren’t reissued when digital formats began usurping cassette production in the country because they weren’t deemed important enough.
“They were always ephemeral by nature. And these tapes and the stories behind them have a largely undocumented narrative,” he says. Hence his desire to preserve and share them for posterity, either digitally or through mixtapes like the one he assembled for the launch of the archive last year.
“Globally, there are so many recordings that lived and died on cassette,” says Gergis. “That’s the only place they existed: On tape. It’s a lesson in remembering to not fetishize specific formats. You end up missing most of the story when your gaze is trained in one place.”