Obituaries

Leo Sarkisian, at 97; creator of VOA’s ‘Music Time in Africa’

Mr. Sarkisian (left) recorded the top musicians at Kabul Radio in Afghanistan in the 1950s.
Voice Of America
Mr. Sarkisian (left) recorded the top musicians at Kabul Radio in Afghanistan in the 1950s.

Sent to Africa by Tempo Records nearly 60 years ago to record music in distant locales, Leo Sarkisian was living in Guinea when he answered a knock at his apartment door. Standing outside lighting a cigarette was Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS newsman.

At the behest of President John F. Kennedy, Murrow had become head of the US Information Agency. After listening to some of Mr. Sarkisian’s recordings, Murrow said: “ ‘That’s marvelous; it’s just like American jazz’ — because it was really jivey,” Mary Sarkisian, Mr. Sarkisian’s wife, recalled in a 2012 interview with The Washington Post.

Murrow hired Mr. Sarkisian to be the Voice of America’s music director for Africa, and the self-taught ethnomusicologist went on to create the popular weekly radio show “Music Time in Africa,” which is the VOA’s longest-running English-language program.

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Mr. Sarkisian, who was born in Lawrence and began his music studies in Greater Boston’s Armenian community, died of pneumonia and congestive heart failure June 8 in an assisted-living center in Bedford, N.H. He was 97 and had moved with his wife to Tewksbury about three years ago.

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Known as the “Music Man of Africa,” Mr. Sarkisian spent decades crisscrossing that continent to record musicians whose work became the basis of his programs, the Voice of America said in a tribute posted online. He had trained as an artist in Boston and also sketched and painted many people he met in his African travels — from musicians to leaders of nations.

“I recorded music, of course, that was my work,” he said in an interview with the VOA in 2012, the year he retired. “But as I worked recording the musicians, I would make sketches and paintings of the musicians, their wonderful expressions on their faces.”

Throughout his Voice of America tenure, much of it during the Cold War, Mr. Sarkisian traveled widely to forge relationships and help cultivate good will for the United States when many African countries were gaining independence from colonial powers. Rolling through Africa with a half-ton tape recorder in his station wagon, he visited dozens of nations and met with presidents and dictators, musicians, and villagers.

His VOA show, meanwhile, introduced African sounds to millions around the world, and it gave local musicians global exposure.

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Unlike experts who specialized in particular areas, Mr. Sarkisian was “utterly agnostic and inclusive,” Kelly Askew, a professor of anthropology and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan, told the Post. The university’s library houses an archive of Mr. Sarkisian’s work.

“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.”

Mr. Sarkisian was the first American many of the African musicians had ever met. His show taught them and English-speaking listeners across the continent about the music of their own countries, and that of their neighbors.

A child of Armenian immigrants who had fled ethnic violence in Turkey, Mr. Sarkisian was born in Lawrence and was a clarinetist in high school. He also 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 a Library of Congress interview. “That’s where I first absorbed all the rhythms and discovered the Arabic lute.”

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His talent for drawing earned him a scholarship at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, from which he graduated. He served in the Army during World War II as a map-drawer, participated in the Battle of Anzio in Italy, and was awarded the Bronze Star.

‘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.’

While still in the service, he met Mary Andonian, who also was from Lawrence, at a dance in Haverhill. “They were both in uniform. She was in the Navy and he was in the Army, and he walked over and asked her to dance,” their niece Elaine Sarkisian said. “And they both had to ask their families if they could date one another.”

They married in 1949. “It really touched our hearts when they retold their love story,” Elaine said.

After the war, Mr. Sarkisian was a commercial advertising illustrator in New York City and spent hours at the New York Public Library reading up on music from China, Japan, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia. As a child, he had learned Turkish, Armenian, and French, and he soon added Farsi and some Arabic.

Music essays he published caught the eye of Irving Fogel, who ran Tempo Records in California, which acquired original field recordings for use as background music by movie studios. Because of Mr. Sarkisian’s understanding of music and facility with languages, Fogel hired him and trained him as an audio engineer.

Mr. Sarkisian and his wife flew to Los Angeles and moved into Fogel’s European-style castle in Beverly Hills, where Walt Disney was a regular guest. Mr. Sarkisian worked on background music for “The African Queen” and several Tarzan films.

In 1950, Fogel sent the couple to help radio stations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Mr. Sarkisian, a jolly, easygoing man, became friends with Zahir Shah, the king, who insisted that the couple extend their eight-month stay to 3½ 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,” Mr. 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 Records sent Mr. Sarkisian to West Africa to record in Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. After taking the VOA job, the Sarkisians moved to Washington, D.C. In 1965, “Music Time in Africa” began airing.

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

“I feel as if I’m just beginning,” Mr. Sarkisian said in a VOA interview that year.

The Sarkisians lived in Maryland until moving to Tewksbury.

In addition to his wife, of Bedford, N.H., Mr. Sarkisian leaves a sister, Roxy Yessaian of Tewksbury.

A requiem memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. July 15 in St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in North Andover.

“Art and music — what finer passion can I have? It’s been my entire life, from childhood right up through today, and maybe into the future,” Mr. Sarkisian told the VOA upon retiring in 2012. “I’ll still be doing my art, and I’ll be dancing with my music.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary. Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report. He can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.