When artist Wajid Yaseen paid a visit to Ashton Under Lyne, a small town in Greater Manchester, he found a cassette in his mum’s home. This cassette was filled with recorded messages between Wajid’s mother and her sister, both of whom migrated from Pakistan to the UK and Canada respectively.
Curious about his mother’s cassette letter, Wajid discovered more cassette tapes when he reached out to the local community, and has since shone a light on a beautiful and certainly economical practice used by the first generation of South Asian migrants. It is from this research that Tape Letters emerged.
“It used to snow a lot back then. Lots of snow and fog. You couldn’t see anyone past it. That was the time I got asthma, because the weather was so different from what I was used to. I still have asthma, but I didn’t have it in Pakistan before I arrived here. Our children were small, and the prams were small. We didn’t have telephones at the time, we didn’t have washing machines at home, and the laundrette was far away, so clothes were washed with such difficulty. Once there was so much fog that I took the wrong path and lost my way home. It was late in the evening so I asked a young boy, “Son, I need to go to Waterloo Street…270 Waterloo Street”. He said “Aunty, I’ll take you to your home”. I just couldn’t see my way and it was getting late in the day and around prayer time. There used to be so much fog back then.”
Tape Letters is an oral history project born out of a collection of cassette tapes sent between Britain and Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s. The voices of physically distant family members, family news, gossip, birthday messages, love letters, and everything in between were all recorded on these small cassettes and posted across continents. Since , the project has collected, transcribed, and archived the cassettes and stories surrounding them, with exhibitions already held at Rich Mix, the People’s History Museum, the Bishopsgate Institute, and more to come.
Oral History projects have always fascinated me. Whatever space they are being exhibited, cassette letters make me reminisce about the narrator, the time and space of when it was recorded. As they share their story, the narrator takes me by the hand with their voice and it feels as though I’m standing right next to them.
Tape Letters represents an under-represented community in the arts— the British Pakistani community. As a 24-year-old British Pakistani photographic artist, I centre my work on my identity and the notion of home and belonging. Tape Letters has given me an aural window into the lives of the generations that came before me, particularly the Azad Kashmiri, Potwari speaking community that surrounds me in Birmingham where I live.
Tapes are an immediate practice. Like photographs, they become evidential when the sound of faceless loved ones comes floating out of the speakers. They are an aural snapshot, a memory of a memory that we can open up and listen to at any time. Over the years, I have been digging into the different cultural traditions of my own family history. But sending letters via cassette tapes was unheard of in my family. To me it seemed like an extraordinary archeological discovery. My grandparents who migrated from Lahore to Birmingham, used to write letters in Urdu to family back home in Pakistan. However, when speaking to my mother about this practice, she recalls how the Potwari speaking community did this as there wasn’t a way to write Potwari.
During the coronavirus lockdown, whilst clearing out my house, I found old VCR tapes, 35mm film negatives, CD’s and mini CD’s. It made me realise drastically how technology has changed in the space of 20-30 years. The way we record our memories and view them have changed drastically, and Tape Letters is one of those unforgotten practices. It is so important to keep these stories alive by shedding light on them and archiving them so they are made accessible in the future.
As one of the community engagement officers for the Tape Letters project, I am working for Wajid to research and find these individuals who have tapes to share, and to talk about their experience with us. There are some incredible findings from the project already on the website. We are inviting everyone from the Potwari speaking community to get in touch and share their stories with us to preserve their memories.
If you have any tapes or testimonies that you’d like to contribute to the project, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To follow the Tape Letters Project you can visit the website here: www.tapeletters.com.
Please follow our social media pages to keep updated on how the project is progressing.
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