Sixty years of sound: The cassette’s past, present and future in Egypt

On its birthday, Al Jazeera looks beyond the cassette’s invention in Europe and at its life in Egypt.

A display of cassettes
What happened once the cassette moved beyond the walls of the Philips workshop and its 1963 pavilion in Berlin? [File: Susan Baaghil/Reuters]

Sixty years ago, the compact audio cassette debuted at the German Radio Exhibition. Behind this innovation was Lou Ottens, a Dutch engineer who, the story goes, was home one night listening to music and grew frustrated with his reel-to-reel tape recorder.

So the head of product development for the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium, decided to design something that was cheaper, more mobile and easier to use. And he did, creating the world’s first compact cassette system, in which spools of magnetic recording tape were encased in a small plastic body. Instructions for the EL 3300 speak to Ottens’s early aims.

“Now that you are the proud owner of this handy pocket recorder,” the manual reads, “you can record and play back wherever or whenever you wish.” The apparatus was “so easy to operate”, the document adds, “you will do it almost automatically.” The directions to follow seemed unnecessary.

The story of the cassette’s invention is often the only part of its history that is paid attention to. But what happened once the medium moved beyond the walls of the Philips workshop and its 1963 pavilion in Berlin?

Cultural production at your fingertips

Cassettes enabled an unprecedented number of people to create and circulate new cultural forms. Nowhere is this more evident than in Egypt, where they became a culture lasting decades – empowering listeners from all walks of life to become cultural producers for the first time.

The advent of Egypt’s cassette culture was, in part, a transnational affair. In the 1970s and 1980s, more Egyptians were on the move than ever before. The Middle East boasted the world’s fastest-growing air market and migration was popular in the midst of the oil boom.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians ventured out in search of higher wages. Often ending up in Libya, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, they frequently sent money home and bought consumer durables abroad, evidence of a newfound purchasing power. Among the more common objects acquired by migrants and other Egyptians on the go were cassette players.

A display of cassettes at a kiosk
Cassettes being sold at a kiosk in Cairo, 2015 [Courtesy of Andrew Simon]

But international travel was not a prerequisite for procuring the increasingly coveted commodity. In Egypt, the arrival of cassettes coincided with the dawn of mass consumption, ushered in by the “infitah” (economic opening) in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Philips showcased its latest cassette players through its local branch, which had been nationalised by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961 but kept Philips in its name. Its competitors, like National, Toshiba and Samsung, relied on licensed agents to offer their products.

Cassette technology started to feature in the press, shown alongside artists and athletes – even President Anwar Sadat, who appeared to want to look like an “ordinary” citizen. To convey this image, Sadat was photographed listening to a tape outdoors.

Cassette players and tapes soon became essential to the modern home, part and parcel of a broader economy of desire. A thriving black market for cassette technology grew because it allowed many Egyptians to reach an audience beyond the state-controlled channels of cultural production.

Egypt’s loudest voices were not on the radio

Numerous voices contributed to the mix tape that is modern Egypt. Ahmad Adawiya, a pioneer of shaabi (popular) music, sang about things listeners could relate to in the Arabic they spoke daily. He was beloved by many but angered others and featured in debates on the “downfall” of music and the “death” of public taste long before mahraganat stars, who mix popular music with hip-hop, faced the same criticism.

a stack of seven cassettes with recordings of Sheikh Kishk, handwritten labels as they are blanks
Informal cassette recordings of Sheikh Kishk [Courtesy of Andrew Simon]

Joining Adawiya on cassettes was Sheikh Imam, a blind performer and political dissident whose subversive anthem-like compositions resurfaced during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Imam set the poetry of Ahmad Fouad Negm to music, challenging state-engineered accounts of contemporary events on non-commercial recordings.

Then there was Sheikh Abd el-Hamid Kishk, a skilled orator who did not shy away from criticising those in power from the mosque pulpit. Well aware that his passionate sermons were being taped, Kishk once cautioned his congregation that police officers were among them, recording his remarks while pretending to pray.

Adawiya, Imam and Kishk used the same technology to circumvent censorship and reach a mass audience in the absence of Egyptian radio, which came under state control in 1934 and refused to give them airtime.

Will cassettes survive?

Magnetic recording reels degrade over time, which means physical cassettes will stop working, if they haven’t already. And, given that a lot of the content on cassettes never made the leap to streaming platforms, projects to digitize this material are all the more urgent before many voices fall silent forever.

Sheikh Imam smiles with hand on his friend's back
Sheikh Imam, left, sitting with friends, smiles with an oud on his lap and a cassette player nearby [Photo courtesy of Sayyid Inaba]

Due to these individual efforts, this once-revolutionary medium is experiencing a revival. Music labels like Wewantsounds, Sublime Frequencies and Habibi Funk Records are reissuing cassette recordings from across the Middle East on vinyl. Retro Cassetta, Disco Arabesquo and other DJs are revitalizing and remixing Arabic-language tapes in clubs.

Efforts are also under way to digitise vast collections of cassettes that promise to expand our understanding of the past, like the Syrian Cassette Archives, Moroccan Tapes or Palestinian Sound Archive, three initiatives breathing new life into old recordings.

Since the cassette’s introduction 60 years ago, it has empowered countless people, allowing new sounds to circulate wider than Ottens likely ever anticipated. By enabling anyone to create culture, circulate information and challenge ruling regimes, the cassette, in many ways, did things we attribute to social media – decades earlier.

What other stories might be told by everyday technologies if how they operated in practice is explored? One thing is beyond any doubt: Cassette players and tapes did not simply join other mass media like records and radio. They were the media of the masses.

A photo of a printed photo showing young Adawiya with a mic, talking to the audience
A photo of a young Ahmad Adawiya singing at an event in Cairo [Courtesy of Andrew Simon]

The author will make his private cassette collection available online to allow for an exploration of Egypt’s acoustic culture. Everything from a Madonna mix tape and Bollywood soundtracks to comedic monologues and pirated recordings of Umm Kulthum, Layla Murad and Abdel Halim Hafiz will surface in this digital archive.

Source: Al Jazeera