Archiving the Ephemeral

Mark Gergis on “Syrian Cassette Archives” – in conversation with Lina Brion

Mark Gergis on “Syrian Cassette Archives” – in conversation with Lina Brion

For several decades, the compact cassette was virtually the most important medium worldwide for the distribution of music. From the end of the 1970s, the cassette made it possible to produce music quickly and cheaply, making it portable and universally available. Mark Gergis witnessed the extent to which cassette culture also left its unmistakable mark on cities like Damascus and Aleppo. From 1997 to 2010, the musician, producer, and music archivist made several trips to Syria from the USA to research the various music scenes and sound worlds of the region and to get to know the people behind the music. Each time, he returned with as many cassettes as he could fit in his luggage – until 2011, when the Syrian civil war that continues to this day broke out, laying waste to large parts of the country and forcing millions of people to flee. The more than 400 cassettes in Gergis’ collection suddenly became documents of a bygone era, cultural heritage that had to be not only protected but also, and above all, shared. His broad collection became the starting point for the “Syrian Cassette Archives” project, which Gergis, who now lives in London, launched with a team of music researchers and in cooperation with Syrian communities in Germany, the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Jordan, Sweden, and Syria. The project digitises and archives the tapes, conducts interviews with the people involved from that time, and makes the music and conversations publicly accessible. In October 2021, the project celebrated its launch with live music, discussions, and a cassette exhibition at the Akademie der Künste. The interactive database went online at the beginning of 2022.

Lina Brion: Why did you go to Syria to collect music?

Mark Gergis: In the 1990s, I began a rediscovery of some of the Arabic music that I had grown up around. One side of my family is Iraqi, or rather Chaldean-Assyrian – an indigenous people from what is now Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and part of Iran – the territory of old Mesopotamia. I began immersing heavily in music from the region, spending years collecting tapes and records from diaspora shops in cities like Detroit, where I had family, and where there are longstanding communities of Arab and Iraqi immigrants. Some of the most unique cassettes there were the ones produced locally. But I had a feeling that these selections only touched the surface of what must be out there. I loved hearing the classics and popular Arabic singers, but after hearing a few specialized regional tapes, I started wanting to hear the more local workaday music of the region. At my go-to western record shops, I was struck by how little Arabic was available in the US. Even in sizable “world music” sections, there just wasn’t much in the way of music from Iraq, Syria or the rest of the region. It was a pre YouTube world then, with a reliance on whichever expensive imported records or institutionalized ethnographic music projects might surface. I knew that traveling to the region was going to be the only way to pursue this in greater depth. As an Arab American, I had a heightened awareness of the perpetual western-based demonization and destruction of the region, and was eager to see it for myself. Naturally, I wanted to travel to Iraq, but being an Iraqi-American in the 1990s had its own set of potential complications as far as my access to the country went. Due to the wars and crippling sanctions on Iraq at that time, many Iraqis had fled to Syria, and I had recently learned about the dozens of Assyrian villages in the northeast of the country. This coincided with my increasing interest in Assyrian music as well. I decided I would visit Syria.

LB: How did your music research progress?

MG: I was driven by a personal compulsion to hear more. I’m not an academic or an official ethnomusicologist, nor did I have any funding for the trips I took – only what I could muster up out of pocket. I also didn’t have any contacts in Syria; I just wanted to drop in and immerse in it. I did what cursory research I could, and finally landed in Damascus for the first time in December of 1997 and it was incredible. I fell in love with everything about the place and the people I’d meet there. Cassettes were the primary medium for music in Syria at the time, and on every populated street in town you’d find cassette kiosks – sometimes longstanding permanent shops, and sometimes mobile kiosks. They’d often be blaring that week’s popular tape at full volume just next to another cart, whose owner would have his favourite tape of the week blaring at an even greater volume. It was dizzying; I didn’t even know where to start. When I travel, I bring a shortwave AM/FM radio along with me, and after a day out, I’ll spend time recording music and sound off the radio – sometimes bringing recordings out to the cassette stalls asking about the particular style and how I might hear more. While some shopkeepers might not have the patience for it, many ended up offering suggestions, or trying to encourage or discourage me from certain music.

LB: So a lot of people were eager to talk about the music and to share with you what they liked.

As it went, coffee or tea would get served, and the hours would just fly by. A shop patron or two may get in on the party and intervene to suggest their favourite artists, and so on. From music, we’d move to every other known topic and make a night out if it. These were some of the best times ever, with music as the starting point. I’d end up talking with someone for several hours in a café after meeting them in the shop, or going home with them, meeting their family, and listening to even more music. There wasn’t a lot of tourism in Syria at that time. People in Syria were curious and I was curious back, and people endured my terrible Arabic language skills and showed me incredible warmth and hospitality that I never forgot. The initial collection of my tapes that form the “Syrian Cassette Archives” reflects this period of personal research and exploration, and the connections that I made over time with local music shops, producers, and musicians in Syria. It was a sort of learn-as-you-go approach for me – fully immersing in this music and going back to Syria as often as I could over the next decade. I didn’t have any intention of making an archive; I was just curious.

LB: What kind of music did you collect?

MG: I wanted to hear as many styles as I could. Of course, my tendencies toward Iraqi and Assyrian music are reflected, but there are tapes of Syrian Arabs, of Kurds, Armenians, recordings of live concerts, studio albums of groups and soloists; classical, religious, patriotic tapes, children’s music, and so on. So the material in the collection is quite broad, but the more I listened, the more my ears were tuned to the dabke and shaabi music: the folk music of the region, often danceable, which is performed at weddings and celebrations. In the 1980s and 1990s, electronic synthesisers made their way into Syria, and musicians began to incorporate these new sounds, creating hybrid forms of folkloric styles. I’d soon learn that this music didn’t always have the best reputation amongst some of the academics and urbanites in Damascus.

LB: Was this a classist distinction?

MG: Yes. I wasn’t initially aware of the complex inherent stigmas that went with certain regional musical styles. As a result, the breadth of the collection reflects the choices of an outsider, guided by a certain naiveté that probably couldn’t or wouldn’t have been selected by a Syrian at the time. A lot of the cassettes from that time, especially the shaabi tapes, were very ephemeral. The music existed solely on cassettes; this was its only medium, and many were only pressed in limited runs and sold regionally with a one or two year shelf life. Many were never deemed relevant enough to be digitised or rereleased on CD or other formats. But yes, at the end of the day, there were classist stigmas, and a hesitance to share what might be considered “lower art forms” with someone asking to hear Syrian music. It really depends on who you were talking to, but in Damascus, I had many debates along these lines. And I started to understand it. One has to consider: Syria had been reduced to a “rogue state” by western definition, and had very little positive visibility in the West. There were brilliant minds – unique, world class artists, architects, musicians, designers – all fit to be on the world stage that just didn’t have the opportunity. In urban Damascus, they might think about the music of the countryside as something a bit embarrassing, with negative connotations. Why would they want to share this with an outsider who wanted to hear “good Syrian music”? I also think it was difficult for them to imagine those facets of Syrian “low culture” being represented on a world stage, when Syria had so, so much else to offer that hadn’t been given those opportunities. These are all fair arguments when you consider them. Some people were also curious about how I could profess to like the sound of shaabi and like the sound of the classics as well. Members of my own family have also asked me this over the years.

LB: What did you tell them?

MG: That I was curious… and that I can enjoy all of it, as strange as it may seem. I’m interested in hearing everything – the most outlying Bedouin tracks from the south of the country, to the Assyrian and Kurdish sounds of the northeast, to the 20th century Arab classics like Sabah Fakhri and Farid al-Atarache, etc. If one wants a holistic musical understanding of the country, it seems that all of these and more should be part of the process.

LB: On the one hand, the cassette introduced the sense that everything could be recorded all the time – every party, every gathering. You, too, always had your cassette recorder with you on your travels. At the same time, this culture of recording was not for keeping and securing, but for a circulation of the music over a certain time. Do you think this kind of cassette culture was specific to that region?

MG: When we think of the unprecedented democratisation of music that cassettes enabled on a global level, Syria was no exception. There were regional styles of music in Syria that had never had proper recording or distribution outlets before the cassette era began. For example, provincial wedding singers who might be known on a very local level might have remained exclusively local phenomena prior to the cassette era. The medium quickly afforded them a platform that could be reproduced and distributed cheaply and rapidly. As in any big city, Syria’s urban centers have large numbers of workers who hail from villages across the country. With cassettes, workers from the northeast could listen to music from back home by visiting a kiosk on the streets of Damascus. Syria’s many music companies recognized this marketing potential and formed networks of regional agents to scout for talent. Most of the times that a singer played at a wedding or party, the organisers would record it to cassette and sell it to a distributor. The cassettes became a sort of business card for singers: increasing their visibility, and featuring a phone or pager number on the cover art. A wedding singer might have ten, twenty, or even thirty tapes released in a year. It was a robust market with a fast rotation. Aleppo was the primary hotbed for cassette production companies. I don’t even know how many there were. Some came and went, and some endured for decades.

LB: I guess those shops don’t exist anymore?

MG: In 2011, when the crisis began in Syria, longstanding music companies disappeared overnight. In our research we’ve located a few of them, but many remain untraceable. A few still exist in cities that weren’t as ravaged by the war and a few have moved onto digital platforms. As a sidenote, there are still some people who buy tapes in Syria – mainly due to the number of vehicles that still have cassette decks in them. The solid justification is that CDs tend to skip when driving on bumpy roads, while tapes don’t.

I didn’t know that 2010 would be my last trip to Syria. It was truly heart breaking to watch the country’s descent into war, and learn of friends and contacts suffering unthinkable trauma, displacement and even death. And it went on and on, and then ISIS emerged, and the destruction was compounded beyond belief. As a lifelong visitor to Syria, with my memories and love for the place, these cassettes were all I had left. In 2018, I started thinking about the collection, which I had pulled from over the years for various releases, such as the 2004 audio document I Remember Syria, among others. But in the context of current times, the collection had taken on an unfortunate new gravity. Demographic shifts and displacement can greatly alter the course of regional music. We’ve seen the cultural amnesia that can result from this in Cambodia and Vietnam, Afghanistan and Somalia, or any country that has experienced this level of tumult and loss. With that in mind, the idea for Syrian Cassette Archives began: an idea to document, share and learn about these tapes.

LB: And those who fled the country probably didn’t bring their music collection with them, so the archive also enables them to listen to their music again, especially since a lot of this music existed solely on cassette.

MG: Yes. In this sense, those ephemeral cassettes have a tragic added value to them now. I mean, we do have to consider YouTube, which has become an enormous accidental repository for cultural heritage. Aside from Syrian, Iraqi and Assyrian music, I listen to and collect music from southeast Asia, and the southeast Asian diaspora. So many individuals have been digitising their incredible audio and video collections – increasingly so during lockdown. It’s mind-blowing, really. But YouTube can change this tomorrow and shut down every one of those channels without warning. We don’t have a friendship agreement with them; YouTube hasn’t said: “we support your cultural heritage”. Somebody who’s done an incredible amount of work to put this material up could lose it overnight for numerous reasons. With this in mind, I think it’s important to to nurture, support and recognize the value of independent archives and collections. I hope that there are thousands more coming – each with their own way of sharing and adding to our understanding.

LB: “Syrian Cassette Archives” is not only a music archive but also an archive of stories and encounters. Your research over the years has been almost as much about talking to people as it has been about collecting music.

MG: The online archive isn’t intended to simply be a digital dump of music on a website. Each tape tells a story, and we’re working with a great team of collaborators, contributors and researchers to add to these stories with featured written and audio content. Additionally, we are having conversations with musicians and producers from the era to discuss their histories, where they are now, and how Syrian music production and consumption have fared in recent times.

The project is essentially a perpetual work in progress. Our long-term vision for the project is expanding, as is the collection itself, which is moving beyond my initial collection, thanks to donations and contributions. And as much as we welcome the donation of cassettes to the project, we also welcome digital submissions from those who may have cassettes from the era. It’s not an endeavor to hoard physical cassettes. A benefit of being a digital archive means we decrease the reliance on physical tapes or asking people to part with their tapes for the sake of possessing them in a centralized location. The tapes become secondary to the stories that can be told around them – and also in the ways we can find to collaborate with collectors and researchers inside and outside of the region. Syrian Cassette Archives will undoubtedly mean different things to different people. Some may come to it nostalgically; some may come as researchers or just out of curiosity. Hopefully, it can serve as an engaging vehicle for anyone interested, while adding to the understanding of Syria’s recent and diverse musical history.

MARK GERGIS is a London-based music producer, musician, and audio and video archivist, known for, among other things, his music releases on the Sublime Frequencies record label. Since the early 2000s, he has been devoting his research and production to regional folk-pop music from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, along with music from the Asian diaspora in the USA from the mid- to late 20th century. In 2007, Gergis brought the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman to stages in the West for the first time; he has also worked closely with the Turkish musician Erkin Koray. He founded the “Syrian Cassette Archives” project in 2018.

LINA BRION is Assistant to the Director of Programming at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.