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Leo Sarkisian, who brought African music to listeners around the world, dies at 97

Leo Sarkisian, left, records the top musicians at Kabul Radio in Afghanistan in the 1950s.  CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Voice Of America
Leo Sarkisian, left, records the top musicians at Kabul Radio in Afghanistan in the 1950s. CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Voice Of America

Leo Sarkisian, a self-taught ethnomusicologist whose popular weekly radio show, “Music Time in Africa,” remains the Voice of America’s longest-running English-language program, died June 8 at an assisted-living center in Bedford, New Hampshire. He was 97.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said a nephew, Levon Andonian.

Born to Armenian immigrants who had fled ethnic violence in Turkey, Sarkisian was a decorated World War II veteran and artist who fell into an international music career through a series of lucky encounters. Among them was a fateful meeting with radio legend Edward Murrow, who hired him in 1961 to work for Voice of America.

As part of a Cold War strategy to cultivate a positive image of the United States at a time when many African countries were gaining independence from colonial powers, Sarkisian was given wide leeway to travel and forge relationships. Over several decades, he visited more than 38 African countries, lugging a half-ton tape recorder in a station wagon and meeting with presidents and villagers, dictators and drummers, in the name of music.

His show introduced African sounds to millions of listeners around the world and gave local musicians global exposure - jump-starting the careers of some, such as the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. He recorded American jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong when he visited Africa as a goodwill ambassador, and he trained sound engineers at newly independent radio stations across the continent, many of whom continued to send him local recordings to play on his show.

Unlike other experts who specialized in one area or another, Sarkisian was “utterly agnostic and inclusive,” said Kelly Askew, a professor of anthropology and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan, whose library is home to the Leo Sarkisian Archive and lists it as “one of the top four collections of African musical heritage in the world.”

“He was interested in anything and everything that was performed that had a melody or drumming, whether it was church music, Islamic music, orchestral classical music,” Askew said. “He wasn’t stuck to some traditional idea of what counted as African music.”

Many people he recorded had never met an American before. Sarkisian’s show taught them and other listeners across English-speaking Africa about the music of their own countries and that of their neighbors.

“He was the man,” Peter Clottey told The Washington Post in 2012. He was a native of Ghana who listened to Sarkisian’s show in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s and later became a reporter for the VOA program “Daybreak Africa.”

“People thought he was very authentic, and he got to know the musicians firsthand,” he said. “To hear your country’s music on an international station is a big deal. . . . Nobody had done that before.”

Levon Sarkisian was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Jan. 4, 1921. He was a clarinetist in high school, and he studied Middle Eastern music theory with an Armenian violinist in his hometown.

“All of the ethnic communities were very close, and they’d play music on Sundays at picnics,” he said in an interview with the Library of Congress. “That’s where I first absorbed all the rhythms and discovered the Arabic lute.” He also fell in love with the kanun, a 74-string Middle Eastern lap harp, and played it throughout his life.

His talent for drawing earned him a scholarship at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, where he graduated with special honors in 1942. He then served in the Army during World War II as a map-drawer and participated in the Battle of Anzio in Italy. His decorations included the Bronze Star Medal.

After the war, Sarkisian worked in New York City as a commercial advertising illustrator, but he had a side hobby: In the evenings, he would go to the New York Public Library and read up on the music of the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, China and Japan. With a knack for languages, he also learned Farsi and some Arabic, in addition to the Turkish, Armenian and French he had learned as a child.

Reading the printed descriptions of music was frustrating to him. “He would get these tantalizing snippets - ‘Oh, and they drummed throughout the night,’ “ Askew said. “A musicologist needs more than that. Was it syncopated drumming? Single drum? A drum ensemble? A tambourine?”

Sarkisian’s published essays about music caught the eye of a fellow veteran - and resulted in an unexpected knock on the door of his apartment. “It was man with a fancy sport coat and hat,” he told the Library of Congress. “He said, ‘I’m Colonel Fogel from Hollywood. I read some of your notes on world music.’ “

The colonel, Irving Fogel, ran Tempo Records, which acquired original field recordings for use as background music by movie studios. Because of Sarkisian’s understanding of music and command of languages, Fogel hired him and trained him as an audio engineer.

Sarkisian and his wife, the former Mary Andonian, flew to Los Angeles and moved into Fogel’s opulent European-style castle in Beverly Hills, where Walt Disney was a regular guest. Sarkisian worked on the background music for “The African Queen,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and several Tarzan films.

In 1950, Fogel sent the couple abroad to help radio stations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Sarkisian, a jolly, easygoing man, became friends with Zahir Shah, the king, who insisted that the couple extend their eight-month stay to three-and-a-half years. They traveled the country with a massive reel-to-reel tape recorder, sleeping in pup tents in the mountains and conversing with villagers in their native tongues.

“One morning, in the snow, I got out of my hut and there was a whole group of horsemen there,” Sarkisian told the Library of Congress. He walked up to one of them. “I gave him a good ole American handshake. Another horseman pulled out a lute. He said, ‘I heard you were interested in our music.’ So I spent the whole night with that leader. We drank a whole bottle of vodka. He asked about my American family. I asked about his family. And that became my whole mission in my life - making friends.”

In 1959, Tempo assigned Sarkisian to record in the newly independent states of Ghana, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Liberia. While living in Guinea, Sarkisian had another life-changing knock on his apartment door. It was Murrow, lighting a cigarette.

Murrow, the longtime CBS newsman and TV personality who had just become head of the U.S. Information Agency, listened to some of his recordings. “He said, ‘That’s marvelous; it’s just like American jazz’ - because it was really jivey,” Mary Sarkisian told The Post in 2012. Murrow hired Sarkisian on the spot as Voice of America’s music director for Africa.

The Sarkisians moved to Washington and, in May 1965, “Music Time in Africa” began airing. It was available around the world via shortwave radio (though the station did not broadcast in the United States until 2013). The show was immediately popular; at one point, Sarkisian was receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, each of which was answered by him or his wife.

Sarkisian continued to travel, recording hundreds of hours of traditional and contemporary music in nearly 40 African countries for the program, which ran once or twice a week. He retired in 2012, but the show continues today with Heather Maxwell as host.

The Sarkisians lived in Rockville, Maryland, until moving to New Hampshire three years ago. In addition to his wife, survivors include a sister.

Asked why his show had endured so long, Sarkisian recalled Murrow speaking about the “last three feet.”

“He said, the most crucial link in an exchange is the last three feet, personal contact, one person talking to another; in a journey of 10,000 miles only the last three feet matter,” he told the Library of Congress. “That has been what our lives have been about, that ‘last three feet.’ “