A million cassettes are shelved wall to ceiling at Shabab Al Wadi Recording in Sharjah.
Once a city where cassette stores were as abundant as grocery shops, Abdullah Mohammed Khalili’s Al Sharq shop is now the last of its kind.
The store opened in 1985 and, today, is a tribute to the antiquated recording medium, stocking works you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere but here.
Inside the shop, the spines and fronts of cassette boxes form a mosaic of primary and neon colours along the walls. The poorly saturated photographs of several familiar faces peer out from their cover art.
Egyptian singers Ruby and Shereen look down from one shelf. Bob Marley and Britney Spears can be seen on the shelves across, dedicated to international works.
But the most prized part of Khalili’s collection are the tapes dedicated to regional folk artists, which the owner says are among the most sought-after cassettes in his store.
Scroll through the gallery below to see more of Khalili's impressive cassette collection:
“My bestsellers include artists such as Mehad Hamad, Eida Al Menhali, Harbi Al Amri and Mohammed Hassan,” he says. “And Saudi musicians such as Mohammed Abdo and Abu Baker Salem. These musicians still have an audience and demand today.”
Nostalgic to some and archaic to others, Khalili says cassettes are still important as they contain works that are hard to find online.
“There are cassettes I have that people are looking for that are not available on YouTube or digitally. So they come to me.”
Khalili’s love for cassettes is an almost four-decade affair. He began selling tapes in the early 1980s. In the years before he opened Shabab Al Wadi Recording, he would distribute cassettes for music companies such as Al Khuyul and Master.
“I had a small car and would go to distribute the cassettes to stores in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah,” he says. “Then I decided to produce Emirati musicians. Traditional musicians would come and record with me. So I would distribute my own productions as well as other cassettes.”
Shabab Al Wadi Recording houses an impressive archive of traditional Khaleeji music. And to this day, Khalili still trusts that word of mouth will bring him customers.
“There aren’t many of these stores around. I think this is the only cassette store in Sharjah,” Sharjah resident Abdullah says.
A first-time patron of the shop, he heard about Shabab Al Wadi Recording through friends who told him of Khalili’s impressive collection.
“It’s really great because he has a special collection,” Abdullah says.
Like with most companies in the music industry, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on Khalili’s business.
“The coronavirus really impacted my store because people aren’t leaving their homes unless it’s essential,” he says.
But the cassette store has weathered several challenges already, having persisted through the obsolescence of the medium into the digital age, and Khalili is determined to keep the shop running.
“I would love for the younger generation to come back to the old classics,” he says. “It’s good for people to never forget their heritage. They shouldn’t forget the classics. These cassettes will be around for as long as I live.”