Arts, Culture & Media

African music expert shifts gears after retiring from long-running VOA show

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Leo Sarkisian shows off his musical collection. Sarkisian recently retired after decades of hosting Music Time in Africa. (Photo by Richard Harris.)

The man who founded Voice of America’s “Music Time in Africa” program retired this past fall at the age of 91 after 47 years on air.

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And while Leo Sarkisian may not be well-known in the United States, but in Africa, he is kind of a household name.

Sarkisian exudes the energy and enthusiasm of a man a fraction of his age. He sums up his improbable life by quoting an African proverb: “When door opens, go in.”

And he did, again and again.

Growing up in an Armenian family in the immigrant city of Lawrence, Mass., where he was constantly drawing and taking art classes, Sarkisian got a scholarship to the prestigious Vesper George School of Art. During his childhood, he was surrounded by Middle Eastern music, playing the lute and bamboo flute with other Armenian musicians.

After World War II, Sarkisian went to New York to work as a commercial artist. But he would go to the library at night and read anything he could get his hands on about the traditional music of other countries. No matter how much he read about the music in foreign lands, it wasn’t enough. He decided that he needed to go to the countries to really understand the nuances of the local music.

Not long after, there was a knock on his apartment door in New York City. A friend had passed on Sarkisian’s papers to Irving Fogel of Tempo Records in Hollywood, who had worked with Armed Forces Radio during the war.

Fogel had been looking for someone like Sarkisian, who had the language skills and thirst for musical knowledge to train as a recording engineer and send overseas to record traditional music for film scores and albums — music he couldn’t find in libraries in this country.

“So in those few seconds,” Sarkisian said, “I turned from one career to another, from art to music.”

Sarkisian and his wife, who both came from modest backgrounds, drove cross country to California and found themselves at the front door of an English castle in the Hollywood Hills.

Fogel answered the knock.

“This is your home while you train," he said.

Before he and his wife were sent abroad, Sarkisian helped edit the music for the Humphrey Bogart film, “The Africa Queen,” and he edited the first recording of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which would become the signature theme for the Harlem Globetrotters.

After a year, Sarkisian was sent to Pakistan where he and his wife picked up a Jeep and the finest recording equipment and set off on the adventure of a lifetime. They crossed the Khyber Pass into 1950s Afghanistan, then a peaceful country, befriended the Afghan King and recorded tribal music that had not been heard outside of Afghanistan.

During a visit to the ancient city of Herat, Sarkisian captured what he said was the rarest recording of his career: a man in his 90s who had been the court singer for the Emir of Afghanistan, before the emir died in 1919.

Before Sarkisian left the United States, Fogel told him he'd had one shot in the remote areas he would visit.

That’s something that Sarkisian thought about when he entered the dense jungle of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. As he walked closer to the main village of the Chief, the bushes on either side of the path would part and men wearing headdresses with colored paint on their cheeks would peer out.

Distant drumming would get louder as the village approached.

Sarkisian says the Chief greeted him with what he was told was a one-time honor — a special ceremony involving a wild boar tied to a pole. With the villagers gathered, the Chief took a narrow piece of bamboo, fashioned into an arrow, and punctured the boar’s neck. As the stream of blood poured out, a woman caught it in a bamboo cup, mixed in a white powder, and gave it to the Chief. She poured some of the mixture into a second cup and gave it to Sarkisian.

The drums stopped.

“You could hear a pin drop,” Sarkisian said.

The Chief drank the boar blood concoction, then looked at Sarkisian, who says he drank it without hesitation or fear. The drums sounded, and everyone started clapping. Sarkisian was an honorary Chakma.

In Africa, Sarkisian’s first major stop was Guinea, which had just become independent. He became friends with President Toure. He was expecting to stay in Guinea about eight months, but it became three and half years.

During that period, Sarkisian’s life turned once more with another knock on the door.

This time, it was famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, who President John F. Kennedy had just named to head up the U.S. Information Agency. Murrow’s first overseas trip was to Guinea. He had heard about Sarkisian from his friend, Fogel. Upon landing in Conakry, Murrow went to Sarkisian’s apartment, walked up six flights and knocked on the door and said, “I’m Ed Murrow and I’m here to hear all about your work.”

Murrow wanted to build the biggest radio station in Africa and he wanted Sarkisian to join the Voice of America. So in 1965, Sarkisian launched “Music Time in Africa,” a weekly program on the Voice of America, first from Liberia and then Washington, D.C., using many of the recordings Sarkisian made during his travels throughout Africa.

For 47 years, “Music Time in Africa” has been a bridge between America and Africa. From the beginning, the idea was to interest people in receiving VOA news by getting them used to the station playing music from different regions of the African continent, music they had no other means to receive.

They began getting letters from English-speaking African countries saying they had never heard the music of other African countries. Sarkisian made a point of answering every letter.

“Can you imagine in some countries that are economically hurting, where families earn about $25 a year, and someone will pay $0.50 for a stamp to write to me?” he asked. “The main thing was that we were playing African music to show them that we as Americans were interested in their culture.”

As his legend grew, Sarkisian became something of a celebrity in Africa, with crowds greeting him at airports and presidents offering police escorts during his travels.

He tried to remain apolitical, but if there was trouble in a region, Sarkisian made a point of playing the cultural music from both areas of a dispute to signal the United States was aware of the conflict.

Sarkisian has become a major figure in the world of ethnomusicology, even though he had no formal schooling in that discipline. He has been invited to conferences to speak on his love for traditional folk music that had never been heard before he had gone to a village to record it.

The Voice of America named his archives of 10,000 reel-to-reel recordings the Leo Sarkisian Library of African Music. The rare collection of music is being digitized by the University of Michigan.

During his travels, Sarkisian never left his artistic roots. He kept a sketchpad nearby and drew portraits of kings, presidents and locals as he roamed from village to village and country to country, recording traditional music.

Among the many instruments Sarkisian plays, he has a special fondness for the kanun, a trapezoid-shaped zither with 74 strings. It’s one of the oldest and most difficult instruments because under each string, there are 12 different metal keys that play quarter- and half-tones.

He performs with Armenian musicians at social functions and has been invited to play at the Library of Congress and Smithsonian’s Hall of Musical instruments.

This past spring, Heather Maxwell, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright Scholar in Mali, took over the helm of “Music Time in Africa.”

“There is no way I can be Leo, but I can contribute and build on what he has accomplished,” Maxwell said.

She wants Africans to know that Americans try to understand their culture and “keep communication open to the continent through beautiful things about Africa — not war, disease, but beautiful things, which is music.”

As for Sarkisian, the first month or so of retirement hasn’t been easy. But when he returned to the office recently, the fire alarm sounded, spilling the entire VOA staff on the street for a drill, an opportunity for him to see old friends.

“So how’s retirement?” one asked.

“You know I’ve been here almost 60 years and always keeping up with what’s going on in the world. So it’s not easy," Sarkisian replied. "It’s honey, do this and honey do that.”

Then he let out a giggle.

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