Cassette tape collection captures music of Syria lost to years of bloodshed

Music producer Mark Gergis turns his collection into an online project that tracks the country's contemporary musical history

The rich and diverse collection of the Syrian Cassette Archives. Mark Gergis / Syrian Cassette Archives

From their pocket-size portability to the myriad of mixes made and the always anticipated sleeve covers, cassette tapes are nostalgia-filled relics of a lost era. Cast a gaze over some of the tapes in the collection of Iraqi-American music producer Mark Gergis and the sentimentality feels even stronger.

He is preserving the sounds of a vanished era in Syrian history with his Syria Cassette Archives collection.

Whether it’s the woman in red, hand on hip, staring coyly at her would-be listeners, the popular singing duo smiling awkwardly through the plastic, or the omnipresence of thick black moustaches against backdrops of faded pinks and large printed numerals, the tapes are a passage to an irretrievable time and space in Syrian popular culture.

Beyond an uncountable death toll and widespread physical destruction, a decade-long brutal war in Syria has also made a graveyard of the country’s pre-war culture.

Many international efforts made over the years to salvage and protect Syria’s heritage have focused on artefacts and monuments. The more intangible arts, such as music, receive less attention.

Gergis, 51, began the Syrian Cassette Archives in 2018 after being "heartbroken" by the loss of traditions and cultures in the country. He had been a regular visitor to Syria since 1997 when he first went to research the sounds of the Assyrian community.

There is an urgency to map and preserve this small facet of contemporary musical heritage for both Syrians and the wider world
Mark Gergis

"I fell in love with Syria and would just always buy tapes whether from the street kiosks or the proper music shops," he tells The National. "As an outsider to the culture, I came into it blindly picking cassettes but also wanting a broad spectrum of representation from the region – it’s so diverse ethnically and in musical styles and cultures so I was trying to understand it."

Gergis’s ethno-musical work began in earnest in the early 2000s with a focus on folk-pop from the Middle East and South-East Asia, including regional choubi and dabke (folk and pop) music from Syria and Iraq, where his family are originally from.

Mark Gergis has been visiting Syria since 1997 and has amassed a collection of more than 450 cassettes, bought in various shops there. Mark Gergis / Syrian Cassette Archives

Gergis amassed an impressive collection of tapes over the decades of travelling back and forth to Syria, including a few live performances of high-energy wedding dance songs by a then little-known singer called Omar Souleyman. Gergis would later seek out the singer and receive permission to release a compilation album, Highway to Hassake, on the US world-music indie label Sublime Frequencies in 2007. Souleyman went on to become a global sensation working with some of the biggest names in music, including Bjork and Four Tet.

A few years into the Syrian war, Gergis thought his collection might have garnered a "tragic added value" by providing a "window into a time that doesn’t exist".

“And that’s when it segued from a collection into an archive,” he says.

More than 450 audio tapes acquired by Gergis between 1997 and 2010 are included in the collection and reflect years of researching and personal connections with local music shops, producers, distributors and musicians around the country.

As many of Syria’s musicians and producers became displaced or fled the country, much of the long-standing music circuits and traditions were disrupted.

“There is an urgency to map and preserve this small facet of contemporary musical heritage for both Syrians and the wider world. The hope is that the Cassette Archives can help stem the cultural amnesia and loss that can arise from these disruptions, and help bridge the gap between Syria’s analogue musical landscapes at the turn of the century and what residues of it remain digitally or online,” Gergis, who lives in London with his wife, wrote about the project.

Mark Gergis turned his own collection into an online archive project that tracks the retro side of Syria's contemporary music history. Mark Gergis / Syrian Cassette Archives

He has also included oral history testimonies and interviews with people who "made that era happen musically" and who demonstrate Syria’s broad and eclectic pre-war listening landscape and music networks.

“It will also allow people to see what has happened with music over this time, to talk about demographic shifts, the triumphs of that era and how the cassette democratised music," Gergis says.

Broad in scope, his collection archives a range of musical styles enjoyed across the different ethnic communities living in Syria, including Syrian Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians and Iraqis, who were displaced by US and UK-led sanctions and war in Iraq.

Among the many tapes are recordings of live concerts, studio albums, soloists, classical, religious, patriotic and children’s music, with a special focus on the regional dabke and shaabi folk-pop styles popular at weddings, parties and social gatherings.

An additional 200 cassettes have been added by donors and collaborators within and outside of Syria since the project began.

"I hope the collection soars beyond just mine," says Gergis, who wants the site to become a centralised space for sharing tapes as well as stories about the music and the people who made, sold, distributed and listened in Syria.

A listening session featuring selections from the collection, and a vinyl set from across Syria with Yamen Mekdad, Gergis’s Syrian collaborator on the project, will be held at London’s Mosaic Rooms on Thursday, August 12. The Archives will be launched online in October.

Updated: August 6th 2021, 7:05 AM