DUBAI: When artist, producer and audiovisual archivist Mark Gergis DJs, he does so with three cassette decks. Not with turntables, not with controllers, but with a small portable cassette deck and two tape consoles. “It’s an interesting and clunky way to become a DJ,” he admits, “but it seems to be in demand. I think people like to see that kind of tactile engagement with technology.
Tapes have been 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 age of four or five he was operating the family bridge. He recorded his family and friends, experimented with audio, and performed 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 get songs off the radio or put ideas on tape,” he says. “It was economical. I used to carry a portable cassette deck everywhere I went in the 80s 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.
Today, a growing number of people around the world are embracing the old school charm of the medium. Like vinyl before it, the humble cassette is enjoying a resurgence, with cassettes being produced and released at higher rates every year. In the UK, more than 185,000 tapes were sold in 2021, up 19% from the previous year, according to the UK Phonographic Industry. The figure represents the highest sales recorded since 2003, when everyone from Billie Eilish to Bicep engaged with the medium.
The Middle East has been part of this revival for several years. The Bastakiya Tapes, a subsidiary of Bedouin Records, has been releasing cassette tapes since its inception in 2015, while Dubai-based band WYWY re-released their “Within You Without You” EP late last year. Palestinian online radio station Radio Alhara is also releasing a limited-edition cassette featuring the Damos Room, and Shadi Megallaa, the owner of The Flip Side record store on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, has already dabbled in the cassettes via his GYPS label.
Why though? There are a number of reasons, and nostalgia is high on the list.
“It’s all reminiscent of our childhood, when our parents had big cassette collections,” says Xtianne Alvarez, half of WYWY. She remembers hand rewinding, loading or flipping the tapes, their lyric sheets, their artwork and “the unique warm analog sounds”.
“I remember skipping lunch at school to save money to buy tapes,” adds Mckie Alvarez, WYWY’s other half. “The best part was reading the credits – the feel and the packaging while listening to it. new music.
This type of nostalgia can be extremely powerful, even for musicians like Gergis, who has devoted much of his life to creating the Syrian cassette archive. The tapes were easy, affordable and functional, he says. You can record your own music, create audio letters for your friends and family and exchange them. But when the popularity of cassettes waned, starting with the arrival of CDs, “we lost that warmth and durability that cassettes had,” says Gergis. This partly explains the appeal of cassettes, with their rounder and less perfect sound.
But their revival must also be seen through the prism of DJ, reissue and crate-digging culture, which has accelerated over the past decade and has so far been largely focused on vinyl. Much like in their heyday, cassette tapes offer a cheaper alternative to vinyl for younger generations looking for connectivity beyond the digital world.
“There will always be a kind of nostalgia and fetishization in fashion, and at first this resurgence seemed to be just that,” says Gergis. “But I think there is a new love for it that goes beyond the trend. And maybe it has to do with being inundated with intangible media. digital age have realized that there is something important in tactile formats.”
This desire for tangible media has led to a huge increase in the volume of pressed vinyl, as well as some serious price hikes. It’s also led to some phenomena, says Salem Rashid, the founder of Bedouin Records, which released a mixtape from Tokyo-based Mars89 in December. “These days, most people buy cassettes without even listening to them,” he says. “I’ve been (to) people’s homes and they have collections but they don’t have a tape recorder. But they like to support independent artists or groups in this way, and what happens is that everyone can just release themselves on tape.
“A lot of artists just want to release their demo, and tapes allow people to do that. They can just dub it all at home. That’s why a lot of people, including us, approach it that way. We will continue to release cassette tapes because vinyl has gone crazy, both in terms of price and waiting time from pressing plants.
Rashid released his early tapes out of a desire to “retain a type of sound and image that I don’t see there”. That meant atmospheric, ambient sound for The Bastakiya Tapes. With more releases on the horizon, it’s focused on releasing music that can just be left to run. “It’s more about someone putting on a tape and playing it, rather than focusing on whether it’s this album by this artist.”
For archivists like Gergis, there is also a historical element in collecting tapes. The material comprising the Syrian Cassette Archive is vast – music from Syrian Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Iraqis and Armenians. It includes live concert recordings, studio albums, classical Arabic music, and religious, patriotic, and children’s music. And many of them are unique.
For example, many of the shaabi cassettes that Gergis purchased during his many trips to Syria had a very short shelf life. They were not reissued when digital formats began to usurp cassette production in the country because they were not deemed important enough.
“They have always been ephemeral in 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 put together for the launch of the archive last year.
“Globally, there are so many recordings that have lived and died on tape,” says Gergis. “That’s the only place they existed: on tape. It’s a lesson in remembering not to fetishize specific formats. You end up missing most of the story when your gaze is directed to one place.