Syrian Cassettes Archives: A Community-Based Archive in the Digital Age

By Farah Zahra

By Farah Zahra

In 1900, the first music archive in human history was established. The Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv marked the launch of the era of audio recordings production, of growing concerns of music preservation and of preoccupation with projects of comparative musicology. With the rise and consolidation of nation-states projects especially in the first half of the twentieth century more music archives were gradually established by official cultural institutions. Those projects were largely informed by ideological, nationalist, or elitist agendas. Throughout the following decades, music archives have undertaken radical changes pertaining to issues of collecting, ownership, dissemination, and access. The past two decades have been especially potent on that front. Since the early 2000s, a radical shift marked the understanding and the practice of making, preserving, and presenting musical heritage. Bourgeoning music archiving projects grew out of a frustration with the old ideological archiving frameworks, institutional patronage, and restrictive access. Community-based archivists and amateurs attempted to claim back some level of control over archival records and collections and sought to widen the scope and level of access. These projects also benefited from the affordances of the World Wide Web, and to use Arjun Appadurai’s words, from the growing “global cultural flows” aided by the flux of peoples, ideas, capital, and technology across borders. 

In case of wars, armed conflicts, and mass displacements, the necessity of documenting and of archiving becomes especially imperative. In such cases, documentation attests to the role of archives and archivists to “bear witness”, as put by one archival studies scholar (Cifor, 2016). In Syria, the outbreak of the revolution in 2011 and the subsequent war created an urgent need to document the atrocities of war and displacement and the crucial necessity to document the country’s cultural heritage. These documentations are underpinned by the fear of loss of the country’s cultural heritage as they are equally motivated by the possibility of reviving tangible and intangible heritage and re-imagining of Syria’s cultural landscape after the war.  Syrian artists, musicians and civil rights activists alike view the role of intangible heritage in conjunction with the potential recovering of a cohesive national identity, social fabric, and collective memory in spite of the inevitable contestation over them. Communities’ displacement has also created the necessity to accommodate for the new reality. The result was the establishment of community-based digital archives. “The Syrian Archive”, “The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution,” and “The Syrian Heritage Archive” are the most notable digital archives founded by Syrians in the aftermath of the Syrian revolution and war. While the first two are mainly concerned with the cultural heritage and artistic expressions in pre- and in- wartime Syria, the former is concerned with the documentation of wartime crimes and human rights violations committed during the war. These archives also benefit from people’s ability to document with their own hands, mainly using their smartphones and other devices. In other words, the revolution and war unfolded on the ground and in digital spaces. 

Within this landscape of cultural activism, the “Syrian Cassettes Archives” project emerged. Similar to other projects seeking to document, preserve and share aspects of the Syria’s cultural heritage and Syrians’ artistic expressions, this project aims at mapping and preserving Syria’s folk-pop musics made available on commercial cassettes in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s’. The collection includes 600 tapes covering a wide range of regional musical styles covering folk, urban and pop genres and stretching from Al-Hasakah in the north-east to Al-Suwayda in the south-west.

As an enthusiast-founded and community-led and managed archive, Syrian Cassettes Archives is best described as a project with bottom-up approach to musical heritage preservation—or what popular music scholar Sarah Baker (2018) calls a “Do-It-Yourself” approach to archiving. The project description explains its approach which involves the sharing of the wealth of musical diversity with “both Syrian and the wider world via multiple platforms and mediums, including interviews with musicians and producers from the era” all “while encouraging discussions around Syria’s pre-war music networks and now.” From that perspective, Syrian Cassettes Archives is not a finished archive per se but rather an archiving endeavour—a living and breathing archive that is continually in the making. The founder of the project, Mark Gergis expressed the project team’s plan to share the collection of 600 tapes gradually with a rolling-out process being informed by audiences and collaborators’ input. More importantly, the Syrian Cassettes Archives team will share oral history interviews with music label producers, music shop owners and musicians of the era. The project website, which is expected to go live in early 2022, will also feature commissioned written pieces, and other contributions such as audio mixes and more. The feedback of audiences, amateurs of the musics featured, musicians and others will then help guide the project’s team curation of content. On this strategy, Gergis explains: “we want to share more tapes as we go and our decision will be informed by the feedback we receive from our audience, otherwise the project would be a dead archive.” Gergis defends an interactive archiving process at the expense of an archive as a finished product. Ultimately, community-based music archives growing out of dissatisfaction with institutional constraints and of a commitment to the practice of integrating community contribution in their very raison d’être also widens the understanding of music ownership. By soliciting permissions to share digitized versions of the cassettes and including the voices of some of Syria’s musics’ custodians, the project unequivocally embraces the principles of shared stewardship that are equally shared by the music producers, musicians, amateurs and audiences who made, shared, and circulated the musical styles and tracks featured by the digital collection.

More importantly, the Syrian Cassettes Archives project should also be carefully considered for its power to “bear witness”. Music cassettes produced and circulated in Syria in the past few decades were first and foremost a product of the growing democratization of music recording and production in the age of cassettes bearing witness to the vibrant and diverse regional folk-pop music scenes of the country. In wartime and post-war Syria, the survival of the pre-war era cassettes bears witness to individual and collective determination to preserve, revive and make accessible regional musics’ recordings to younger generations of Syrians and the wider public. From this perspective, the Syrian Cassettes Archives is not only an archive of memory but also an archive “of the imagination” that has “the capacity to aspire” (Appadurai, 2003) in post-war Syria.

The urgency to preserve pre-war Syria’s rich folk-pop musical styles is born of a fear of losing some of the country’s musical diversity. The ongoing destruction, displacement of peoples, and disintegration of musical practice communities have all motivated the making of the Syrian Cassette Archives. The project is also emblematic of the ongoing and changing relationship between community-based archives and cultural research institutions. While the Syrian Cassettes Archives opens access to a rare and precious collection of music recordings, one should not assume that all Syrians have equal access to online platforms, internet connectivity, and smartphones. Given technological and travel constraints, the project is dedicated to in-person public presentations, exhibits, and live music performances seeking to reach Syrian communities both in and outside the country. Ultimately, the project team continues to seek new venues of engaging more audiences with the aspiration to document and preserve some of Syria’s musical heritage for future generations.

References

Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. Theory Culture Society, 7, 295–310.

Appadurai, A. (2003). Archive and Aspiration. In W. Maas, A. Appadurai, J. Brouwer, & S. C. Morris (Eds.), Information Is Alive: Art And Theory On Archiving And Retrieving Data (pp. 14–25). NAI Publishers.

Baker, S. (2018). Community Custodians of Popular Music’s Past: A DIY Approach to Heritage. Routledge.

Cifor, M. (2016). Affecting Relations: Introducing Affect Theory to Archival Discourse. Archival Science 16 (1): 7–31.