How an art project is preserving British-Pakistani oral histories through cassette tapes

As the anniversary of his father’s death approached, Wajid Yaseen searched for a set of cassette tapes holding recordings of his father singing naats, a form of Islamic devotional hymn. Listening to the tapes transported Yaseen back to his childhood and days he spent singing with his father. While reminiscing, he came across another set which his mother had used to record messages to be sent back to relatives in Pakistan.

Yaseen is a sound artist and director of London-based collective Modus Arts. The collective consists of artists, sound technicians and administrators who collaborate on installations, live performances, scores and sound sculptures. The discovery of his mother’s recordings sparked questions for Yaseen about whether other British-Pakistani families who had migrated to the UK had also used cassette tapes to communicate with their relatives abroad.

Photograph of Wajid Yaseen / Tape Letters

He began by interviewing his mother, Halima Jabeen, about the practice and then reached out to other family members. Four years on, Modus Arts’s oral history project, ‘Tape Letters’, has collected around 60 cassettes and Yaseen’s team has conducted over 100 interviews with people from across the UK including in Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham, London and Leeds. His aim is to unearth and preserve the history of British-Pakistani migrants who settled in the UK between 1960 and 1980.

“At first it was incredibly difficult for people to give their cassettes to us because they have private information on them and it is sentimental,” Yaseen says. “But after speaking with people, we built a relationship of trust with them. We want to honour their stories and memories.”

Yaseen grew up in Oldham in the 1970s, before moving to London when he was 18. Then, cassettes were an inexpensive and easy way to listen to music and share it with others. His friends would have pop and rock tapes, and their parents would listen to Bollywood music, ghazals (poems about love and loss) and Qawwalis (a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing).

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Their size and cost made them an attractive alternative to phone calls to relatives overseas. Telephone networks in Pakistan were not well established and, where calls could be made, they were often prohibitively expensive. Cassettes, on the other hand, could be reused and were easy to get hold of. 

For Yaseen’s mother and others like her, written letters were not an option because she spoke Pothwari, an oral-only language used in Pothohar and Azad Kashmir regions of Pakistan. Also, many people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, particularly women, did not know how to read or write Pakistan’s national language Urdu, as they did not attend school.

“These tape letters have taught us so much more than the migratory experiences of British-Pakistanis,” Yaseen says. “The project has bloomed into something extraordinary: the cassettes have revealed the history of intergenerational relationships, language, the evolution of technology and have opened up conversations about class and gender discrimination.”

Yaseen describes how his mother had used tape letters to speak out about mistreatment she had suffered while living with her in-laws. “This was an extraordinary display of how vital the cassettes were specially for women like my mother who faced discimination and didn’t go to school, to make their voices heard,” he says.

By the late 1980s, the use of cassettes had died down as other forms of communication became more accessible. Today, tape letters from the 1960s and 1970s are scarce because younger family members have recorded over the top of the older generation’s tapes. Yaseen came to the realisation that these cassettes, once tucked away in attics of Pakistani family homes across the country, were important pieces of British heritage.

To make the project more accessible, Yaseen and his team used the phonetics of Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, to create a written form of the messages before translating the recordings into English. 

The National Lottery has provided funding to hire oral historians allowing further expansion of the project and Modus Arts has held a number of public events and exhibitions, including a sound installation and immersive exhibition at People’s History Museum in 2018.

Yaseen said: “People like my mum and her generation never went to places like the People’s History Museum. These spaces aren’t made for them. Their lives and language isn’t usually reflected back to them and so there’s no drive to go to these places. I was really proud that I was able to bring people together here.”

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The Tape Letters team are currently working with Manchester Metropolitan University and have academic projects in the pipeline. A booklet containing poetic translations of five cassettes will soon be published with the help of poet, Suna Afshan.

Tape Letters also collaborated with photographer Maryam Wahid who took a photo of Yaseen’s mother in her garden. The photograph was awarded the Portrait of Britain 2021 award by the British Journal of Photography and it featured on electronic billboards across the country, including in London’s Euston station and in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

Tape Letters have recently released a six-part documentary series which explores the first-hand accounts of British-Pakistani migrants. The series is available to listen to via the Audio Content Fund website.