About

Tape Letters

The Tape Letters project shines light on the practice of recording and sending messages on cassette tape as a mode of communication by Pakistanis who migrated and settled in the UK between 1960-1980.

Drawing directly both from first-hand interviews and from the informal and intimate conversations on the cassettes themselves, the project seeks to unearth, archive and re/present a portrait of this method of communication, as practised mainly by Potwari-speaking members of the British-Pakistani community, commenting on their experiences of migration and identity, commenting on the unorthodox use of cassette tape technology, and commenting on the language used in the recordings.

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 tape 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 stand-out slogan being “Home Taping is Killing Music”). This home recording functionality of cassette recorders prompted many members of the British-Pakistani community to use them also 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.

 

Recordings

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 1980’s however, wider technological advances in both music distribution and telecommunications 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 rendered unlistenable and also discarded. Despite the rarity, some cassettes do exist, and the TAPE LETTERS project team have 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.

 

Technology

 

Poor telecommunications networks in Pakistan and the prohibitively high cost of making phone calls from the UK at the time were a big factor, but the issue of poor literacy rates especially amongst women from a lower socio-economic background drove the practice too. Traditional gender roles for men and women in a conservative Pakistan meant limited access to formal education for many Pakistani women from poorer backgrounds. This meant that many individuals were unable to read or write Urdu – the national language of Pakistan, by the time they migrated to the UK and were essentially incapable of writing home. Very often, letters were dictated to family members but issues of privacy even between close family members prompted the use of cassettes as an alternative and parallel method to letter writing given they could be recorded alone when needed.

Communication:

“It was rare to have a TV in a house, never-mind a telephone, so you know it was just a thing that if somebody was going to visit Pakistan, there’d be some excitement, ‘let’s do a cassette, and send it along’. It’d reach our relatives within a day or two as we’d give it to whoever was going to pass on by hand, and they could listen to our conversations or anything else we wanted to tell them. It was an easy way to communicate at that time.” 

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

“I remember the brands of the cassettes – TDK and Sony, because I used to pinch the tapes with messages on them so I could record my music from the radio. I used to get shouted at because all the original messages were recorded over. That’s how I remember the brands cos we’d try to rip the labels off so our parents couldn’t tell what kind of tape it was.”

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

Behaviours & Casettes:

“I remember the brands of the cassettes – TDK and Sony, because I used to pinch the tapes with messages on them so I could record my music from the radio. I used to get shouted at because all the original messages were recorded over. That’s how I remember the brands cos we’d try to rip the labels off so our parents couldn’t tell what kind of tape it was.”

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

Languages:

“Hindus and Sikhs from Gujranwala (Punjab, Pakistan) and Wazeerabad (Punjab, Pakistan) were Punjabi speakers but where we are in this Gukarkhan area of Pakistan, we use the Potwari language. We and the Mirpuris (KPK, Pakistan) have the same language but other areas have different languages, like Kotli (Azad Kashmir, Pakistan) – they speak in a strange accent. But Mirpur and other areas like Pindi (Rawalpindi, Pakistan) have the same language. Peshawar is separate and in Gujranwala, the language is a little different from pure Punjabi…not much though.” 

Ali Mohammed

Dhuddi, Gujarkhan, Pakistan

“If you couldn’t read or write and wanted to send a letter from Pakistan, you’d have to find somebody to write it for you and it was very hard especially in the villages. When you found someone who could do it, they’d give you this big attitude, ‘oh I’ll do it on a certain day, I’ll do it on that day’. It felt like begging, so instead of going to them, you’d just put your voice on a cassette and send it.”

Liaqut Zaman

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

“I only used to listen to the cassettes once or twice because I’d get upset after that.”

Sarwar Ibrahim

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

Relatives:

“I was five years old when I came to England, and I can remember the recordings on tape. I was quite young and my parents used to make me stand there and say ‘talk to your aunty and uncle in Pakistan and say this and that’ and I used to be too shy to talk but they used to make me talk. I remember that much.”

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

About

Tape Letters

The Tape Letters project shines light on the practice of recording and sending messages on cassette tape as a mode of communication by Pakistanis who migrated and settled in the UK between 1960-1980.

Drawing directly both from first-hand interviews and from the informal and intimate conversations on the cassettes themselves, the project seeks to unearth, archive and re/present a portrait of this method of communication, as practised mainly by Potwari-speaking members of the British-Pakistani community, commenting on their experiences of migration and identity, commenting on the unorthodox use of cassette tape technology, and commenting on the language used in the recordings.

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 tape 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 stand-out slogan being “Home Taping is Killing Music”). This home recording functionality of cassette recorders prompted many members of the British-Pakistani community to use them also 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.

 

Recordings

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 1980’s however, wider technological advances in both music distribution and telecommunications 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 rendered unlistenable and also discarded. Despite the rarity, some cassettes do exist, and the TAPE LETTERS project team have 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.

 

Technology

 

Poor telecommunications networks in Pakistan and the prohibitively high cost of making phone calls from the UK at the time were a big factor, but the issue of poor literacy rates especially amongst women from a lower socio-economic background drove the practice too. Traditional gender roles for men and women in a conservative Pakistan meant limited access to formal education for many Pakistani women from poorer backgrounds. This meant that many individuals were unable to read or write Urdu – the national language of Pakistan, by the time they migrated to the UK and were essentially incapable of writing home. Very often, letters were dictated to family members but issues of privacy even between close family members prompted the use of cassettes as an alternative and parallel method to letter writing given they could be recorded alone when needed.

Communication:

“It was rare to have a TV in a house, never-mind a telephone, so you know it was just a thing that if somebody was going to visit Pakistan, there’d be some excitement, ‘let’s do a cassette, and send it along’. It’d reach our relatives within a day or two as we’d give it to whoever was going to pass on by hand, and they could listen to our conversations or anything else we wanted to tell them. It was an easy way to communicate at that time.” 

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

“I remember the brands of the cassettes – TDK and Sony, because I used to pinch the tapes with messages on them so I could record my music from the radio. I used to get shouted at because all the original messages were recorded over. That’s how I remember the brands cos we’d try to rip the labels off so our parents couldn’t tell what kind of tape it was.”

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

Behaviours & Casettes:

“I remember the brands of the cassettes – TDK and Sony, because I used to pinch the tapes with messages on them so I could record my music from the radio. I used to get shouted at because all the original messages were recorded over. That’s how I remember the brands cos we’d try to rip the labels off so our parents couldn’t tell what kind of tape it was.”

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

Languages:

“Hindus and Sikhs from Gujranwala (Punjab, Pakistan) and Wazeerabad (Punjab, Pakistan) were Punjabi speakers but where we are in this Gukarkhan area of Pakistan, we use the Potwari language. We and the Mirpuris (KPK, Pakistan) have the same language but other areas have different languages, like Kotli (Azad Kashmir, Pakistan) – they speak in a strange accent. But Mirpur and other areas like Pindi (Rawalpindi, Pakistan) have the same language. Peshawar is separate and in Gujranwala, the language is a little different from pure Punjabi…not much though.” 

Ali Mohammed

Dhuddi, Gujarkhan, Pakistan

“If you couldn’t read or write and wanted to send a letter from Pakistan, you’d have to find somebody to write it for you and it was very hard especially in the villages. When you found someone who could do it, they’d give you this big attitude, ‘oh I’ll do it on a certain day, I’ll do it on that day’. It felt like begging, so instead of going to them, you’d just put your voice on a cassette and send it.”

Liaqut Zaman

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

“I only used to listen to the cassettes once or twice because I’d get upset after that.”

Sarwar Ibrahim

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

Relatives:

“I was five years old when I came to England, and I can remember the recordings on tape. I was quite young and my parents used to make me stand there and say ‘talk to your aunty and uncle in Pakistan and say this and that’ and I used to be too shy to talk but they used to make me talk. I remember that much.”

Arshad Mahmood

Ashton Under Lyne, Lancashire

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