It was a traditional form of communication which spanned generations. Now a project is documenting the stories of those who sent cassette tapes to their loved ones abroad.

In the age of FaceTime and social media, few will remember the lengths many Asians used to go to in order to stay in touch with their extended families back in their native countries. 

‘Tape Letters’ shines a light on the use of cassette tapes as a mode of long-distance communication by predominantly working-class Pakistanis when they first migrated to the UK between the 1960s-1980s.

Researchers undertook around 50 interviews uncovering fascinating stories around migration, language, and access to education especially with (now) older women within the community.

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Wajid Yaseen is founder of Modus Arts and director behind the Tape Letters project.

He said the idea originally came about around four years ago when he was visiting his family home in Manchester. “When my father was alive, he used to sing a type of devotional hymn called a naat, and was known by many members of the British-Pakistani community as a ’naat khawaan’ - a singer of naats.

“He always was a deeply community orientated man, teaching children Urdu and Religious Studies. He was the chairman of a Bradford Pakistani cricket team. He was often referred to as a Sufi (a term I didn’t quite understand at the time).

“He would be asked to sing at various people’s homes both relatives and those outside the extended family. Around the 1970s he was being asked more and more to record his singing on cassette tapes so that people could listen to him whenever they wanted, so he would record himself on cassette singing either at home or at the mosque (so he could get a nice reverb sound), and distribute them to the families that wanted them.

“It was around four years ago when I was particularly missing him that I went searching for one of his naat cassettes and stumbled on another cassette which clearly wasn’t one of his.

“It was, what I’m now referring to as a Tape Letters - a long distance audio message from one of our relatives in Pakistan and another one was from my mum’s sister in Canada.

“I knew there and then I had an important artefact in hand in that it would provide an insight into the migratory experience of these first generation British-Pakistanis.”

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Wajid who is directer at Modus Art

Wajid said there were many reasons why people used cassettes. “It was prohibitively expensive to phone Pakistan from the UK in the 70s, around £3 per minute at the time! There was an underdeveloped national telecoms infrastructure in Pakistan at the time too so when a phone call was made, it was tricky to arrange.

“One of the biggest reasons though was around the access of formal education for women from a lower socio-economic background in Pakistan meaning they were essentially unable to read or write Urdu - the national/lingua franca of Pakistan.

“Recording their messages on cassette tapes meant their voices could literally be heard.

“The language we’ve found on the majority of the cassettes so far is a language called Potwari (sometimes referred to as Pahari) and like others has no written style, so we’ve used Urdu to ’transliterate’ the Potwari so we have a sort of access to the content of the cassettes and the interviews. It’s been a huge task.

"Oral traditions of course are always under threat of extinction, so the cassettes themselves then are not only a sort of sonographic snapshot of migration experiences but of the capture of an oral tradition "

A story of migration

Wajid said the project goes in some way to ‘humanise’ the migratory experience, "Feelings of loss and love are universal - utterly universal, and hearing an audio message on cassette that in many instances was deeply private and meant for the ears of one person only, is a reminder of the some of the core experiences we all share. "

A mum with cancer sends a tape to her daughter

Kammar Mirza is a Bradford based mum whose first born child had to be temporarily left with relatives in the UK when her mother in Pakistan was diagnosed with leukaemia. She had a cassette tape message from her mother but it has now gone missing.

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She said, “My mother once sent me a cassette, but I don’t know where it is now. It was around when my mother had blood cancer and her whole blood was transfused. The doctors had said that she won't stay alive for long. I was pregnant with Saad at the time, and it was difficult for me to go (to Pakistan) because I was in the ninth month of the pregnancy.
“My mum sent me a voice recording saying she had prayed for me that may God bless you with a son. So that’s why she sent me a cassette. Then my young one was born and he was around four weeks old when my mother went into a coma.
“They called me over to Pakistan so I went leaving my little one here. My mum died when I reached there. That cassette was here somewhere but I don't know where it is now.”

Dad receives a tape from his children

Mohammed Zareen is an Ashton U Lyne based father who received tape letters but preferred to respond to them in writing.

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"I personally never sent a tape. I used to only write letters. I never actually recorded a tape directly myself, but my children used to record and send tapes.
“When I went to Pakistan, my daughter Asiah recorded a tape for her grandparents and her uncle. She recorded her messages and gave me the cassette to play to them and they listened to it there in Pakistan. They then recorded their reply and told me to play this to my children.
“I brought that cassette back (to the UK) and all the children listened to it.”

Asim and Asma: A love story through tape 

Asma used cassettes right up to the 1990's (later than most people) due to issues of privacy of communication with her husband-to-be based in England.

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Asim from Bradford sent tapes to Asma when she was in Gujarkhan, Pakistan. They sent a taped message to each other on average once every week for three years before they were married. Now they are both settled in Bradford with two children.
She said, "I used to wait for his cassette, and I used to wait for the postman wondering when he would turn up and when he would give me the cassette. I'd be waiting and waiting then the postman would come and he’d have a big parcel.
“So, I'd open it and just listened to the tape straight away. I can't describe those feelings. It was like I was listening to his voice for the first time, like I was listening to what was in his heart for the first time, and what he thought about me. It was just an amazing feeling."

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Asim said, “She couldn’t really express her feelings when we tried to talk on the phone, so all of a sudden it just came into my head one day that we had a tape recorder at home. I thought you know what, I’m going to start recording. It might make things a little bit easier so we can express each other’s feelings. 
“We’re getting married to each other so I want to know a little bit more about her. I didn’t get to know her as much as I wanted to when I was in Pakistan. So I just started recording my voice to her and in between I used to record one or two songs just to complete the cassette, because it was a 90-minute cassette, 45 minutes each side. 
“It wasn’t easy talking, you know, it’s like talking to yourself, basically. So I used to lock myself in my own bedroom and I used to put like a towel or something underneath the door so nobody could stand outside and listen to my recording.
"I used to be on the other side of my bed and I used to talk really quietly, just in case my brothers or my sisters were earwigging outside.”

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Sarwar Jabeen Ibrahim (above) a Lancashire based grandmother who contributed to the archive said, "I could only listen to the cassettes once. I'd get too upset after that."

Halima Jabeen, cassette donor and interviewee said, "It used to snow a lot back then. Lots of snow and fog.

"Sometimes there’d be so much fog that you couldn’t see anyone through it. That was the time I got asthma, because the climate was so different from what I was used to."

From Birmingham to Bradford

Mirza Munir was another one of the early-wave of Pakistani migrants to arrive to the UK in the 1950's. He was met by his brother after arriving in Heathrow and making his way to Birmingham and finally arriving in Bradford as their final destination. 

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"I bought my own shop on Leeds Road, Bradford...yeah, Leeds Road… I started running my shop there, and slowly you know we age with time. My kids were young, and I tried to get them educated as I didn’t want to involve them in the business. Maybe it was my mistake or whatever but I always wanted them to study, so that they could have a better future.
“Everyone wishes that their children should study. Businesses are always running and things never stop, but knowledge is a thing that no one can steal from you. 
“You can give your education to others, and if you do that, it will be everlasting charity, for your whole life. People praise you and wish you well for the whole of your life. Your teacher who educates you, you can’t forget that teacher. You keep praying for him, and then you study more. From the bottom to the top. 
“I don’t know how many degrees you have, but you’ve reached a position where today you’re interviewing  people. Asking them how they worked, what they did in that year, what did they used to do in their village, in Badhana, in GujarKhan, in Rawalpindi, in Lahore, in Peshawer. I mean you came from London and what did you do in London?
“Now, your way of thinking is different. You can say that our children are twenty years ahead of us, because there is a big difference in their education and ours. There is a big difference in our thinking and their thinking."

Arshad Mahmoud was five years old when he came to the UK

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"So, I can remember the recordings - I was quite young. I said the recording went on in early eighties... mid-seventies. 
“Obviously then this telephone was more but, I can remember the recording because they used to make me stand there and say; "talk to your aunty in Pakistan and say this, and such aunty and such uncle”, and I used to be shy to talk but they used to make me talk. I remember that much. And the idea was that, you know they can all sit over in Pakistan and listen to our conversation. 
“Vice versa they send they send a cassette, and we’d all sit around a table, and we’d listen to their conversation, because telephone was very rare. 
“You know TV in a house was rare never mind a telephone so, it was... you know it was just a thing that... somebody was going Pakistan, there’d be excitement, "let’s do a cassette!” , and send it in, and it reach within a day or two, and they can listen to our conversation or anything we want to tell them, messages, it was a easy way to communicate, I think at that time. 
“My brother'd do it, older brother and my father'd do it.  
“When we knew that they going to get the recorder out, we used to run and hide somewhere and they find us and then make us talk. One or two times they pressed record and we didn’t know that they're recording, and they’d ask what do you think about Pakistan and this and that, then you realise what they're doing. When they ask you, we used to run a mile, me and my brother used to run a mile, we didn’t want to talk.”

Tapes between sisters

Two sisters took a divergent migratory route - one moves to the UK and the other moves to Canada. 

Neither of them had the opportunity to learn to read or write (either English or Urdu). Phone calls were prohibitively expensive so they used cassette tapes to tell each other of their experiences of settling in new countries with new climates.

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Zareena Darr said, “I had sorrow in my heart and used to feel that I didn’t know anything, and that I was alone and abroad. The kids were young, and their language was English. There wasn’t that many people from our community that we could talk to - I was alone and dejected. 
"Anyone who suddenly moves over to another country feels alone, especially if they don't know the language. Then we sisters wanted to communicate but we had problems writing letters. 
"It was really difficult for me to accept was that I was illiterate and couldn’t read and write, because although I had the desire to study, I couldn't. I struggled to accept it, but started messaging on cassettes to my sister. 
"I used to tell her about myself, or if someone died, or if someone was getting married, or feelings about our parents because they felt alone too. It was because I could communicate in this way that I felt happy, but there was a lot of heartache within myself about not being able to read or write. 
"There are a lot of things one can't tell anyone in writing. Some things are private, like one's own feelings. It didn't feel right to ask people to write letters on my behalf , even if they were my daughters. 
"Sometimes daughters can be your friends, nevertheless some things stayed in my heart and I used to hide some things from them.”

The project is now looking to source more cassettes and more interviews with scouts teams based in London, the Midlands and the North in the hope of uncovering lots more stories around the practice of recording messages on cassettes. 

You can find more about Tape Letters at