Leo Sarkisian, the creator and longtime producer of The Voice of America’s “Music Time in Africa,” has died. He was 97.
Known by his fans as the “Music Man of Africa,” Sarkisian spent a half-century traveling Africa, listening to local musicians and capturing their performances. Those recordings became the basis of VOA’s longest-running English program.
“Leo always left you feeling like you were special. He didn’t treat anyone less or greater based on their social standing or age or anything, it seemed. He was a true gentleman and optimist and lover of the beautiful things in life,” said Heather Maxwell, an ethnomusicologist who succeeded Sarkisian as the host of “Music Time in Africa.”
Sarkisian arrived in Africa as a soldier in the U.S. Army. In 1961, a fateful encounter changed the course of his life. Edward R. Murrow, newly minted as the director of the U.S. Information Agency, came to Sarkisian’s apartment in Conakry, Guinea, and asked if he’d like to join The Voice of America. Four years later, he went on the air with “Music Time in Africa.”
He spent the next 47 years traveling the continent with his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1949. Together, they met thousands of local musicians and gave their art a global stage.
Sarkisian’s travels put him at the vanguard of African music. Maxwell said a favorite recording from Sarkisian’s collection was of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, before he developed the Afrobeat style that would become his world-famous trademark.
Sarkisian was himself a musician and artist. He sketched performers, audience members and dignitaries. Some of his illustrations can be found in “Leo Sarkisian’s Faces of Africa,” a collection of portraits of people he met in his travels.
But his greatest legacy will perhaps be the original collection of about 10,000 recordings that he curated, representing every African country. In 2014, the University of Michigan acquired the collection from VOA on long-term loan. Their work involves digitizing the collection and preserving it for generations to come.
‘I feel as if I’m just beginning’
Sarkisian retired in 2012, when he was 91.
“I feel as if I’m just beginning,” he told VOA’s Vincent Makori in an interview that year.
When asked what African music meant to him, Sarkisian said, “It’s been my entire life. It’s from my childhood right up to today, and maybe into the future. I’ll still be doing my art, and I’ll be dancing with my music. What else? It is passion.”
Sarkisian’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Turkey in the early 1900s, according to The Washington Post. Born in 1921, Sarkisian studied art and drew maps for the Army, the Post reported.
Sarkisian lived by Murrow’s “last three feet” motto, Maxwell said. That meant the most important part of communication, even across international borders, came from a personal, human connection.
“We still care about Africa,” Sarkisian said in 2012. “We care about them. We love the African culture. And in turn, of course, we have their love, also. And that is the satisfaction of our work.”
Leo and Mary Sarkisian, after spending most of their lives living in Africa, settled in Boston. Leo Sarkisian died June 8 and will be buried in North Andover, Massachusetts, with full military honors.