Leo Sarkisian, Founder of VOA’s Music Time in Africa Program, Dies at 97

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MASSACHUSETTS, United States of America

The creator and longtime producer of The Voice of America’s “Music Time in Africa,”Leo Sarkisian has died aged 97.

Leo has spent most of his life traveling the continent of Africa alongside his wife, Mary, listening to local musicians and capturing their performances hence the nick name ” Music man of Africa.”

“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.”

Meeting Murrow

Leo 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.

Leo’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.

Leo 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.

The Content of this article have been extracted from VOA.