September 05, 2015 Washington DC 12:15 PM

Media Relations / Press Releases

VOA Ethnomusicologist Leo Sarkisian Retires at 91, Leaves Lasting Legacy

Leo Sarkisian and Heather Maxwell (right), the host of VOA's
Leo Sarkisian and Heather Maxwell (right), the host of VOA's "Music Time in Africa," look over listener mail in the library that houses his vast collection of African music. Looking on is Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour.
Leo Sarkisian, the creator of Music Time in Africa, VOA’s oldest English language music program, signed out of work for the last time Friday, ending a career that spanned more than half a century and took him to every country on the African continent.

Sarkisian used his travels to hunt down and record music of every stripe and genre.  His recordings, including some 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, are now part of the Leo Sarkisian Library of African Music, and make up “one of the most valuable and sought-after collections in the world,” according to VOA Director David Ensor.

“Leo is a VOA treasure.  His life’s work, recording and cataloguing, and most importantly, popularizing African music, are just a part of what makes him so special,” Ensor said.  “What many people don’t know is that he spent decades traveling as a VOA goodwill ambassador, visiting countries that most American’s knew nothing about, learning about their music and sharing it with his radio audience.”

  • Leo Sarkisian, with his wife Mary looking on, enjoys a gift presented to him by colleagues at his retirement party.
  • VOA Director David Ensor speaking to Leo at his retirement party on September 28, 2012, thanking him for his years of contribution.
  • Leo reflects on his career with Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour.
  • Leo Sarkisian traveled to every country in Africa discovering new music and talent.
  • “People thought he was very authentic, and he got to know the musicians firsthand. To hear your country’s music on an international station is a big deal. . . . Nobody had done that before.” - Peter Clottey, Ghana native and VOA  Africa Daybreak host, tells the Washington Post.
  • Leo's travels allowed him to create one of the most valuable and sought-after collections in the world housed at VOA headquarters.
  • As host of "Music Time in Africa," Leo was received with smiles and laughter from his fans.
  • Leo searches for a special recording that is part of the collection of African music he assembled during his long career. His collection is now housed at VOA in the Leo Sarkisian Library of African Music.
  • Leo and "Music Time for Africa" host Heather Maxwell (right) look over a new piece of mail written by a fan of the popular music show that Leo started 47 years earlier. It is VOA's longest running English language program.
  • Leo gives his wife a kiss on the cheek as he marks the end of an amazing career at VOA that began in 1963 after he was recruited by legendary broadcaster and former USIA Chief Edward R. Murrow.

Sarkisian, who was recruited by legendary broadcaster and then USIA Chief Edward R. Murrow in the early 1960s, says he met with presidents, top officials and ordinary people on his travels, and was always warmly received.

“In many places, where they only had an ambassador and one PAO (Public Affairs Officer), the people had already arranged television coverage, lectures at the university, it was unbelievable the reception I got.”  Sarkisian says he tried to visit every radio station he could.  At one station in Bangui, Central African Republic, he says the owner looked at him and said, “You mean you came all this way just to visit us?”  It meant so much to them, Sarkisian said.

In addition to his vast music collection, which is housed at VOA, and is now being digitized by the University of Michigan’s African studies department, Sarkisian is also recognized as an accomplished artist, whose drawings have been displayed throughout Africa and Europe.

Sarkisian and his wife, Mary, who often accompanied him on his adventures and helped answer the stacks of letters sent by adoring fans, told The Washington Post that he plans to do more painting now that he is retired.

Heather Maxwell, who is now the host and producer of VOA’s Music Time in Africa, spent part of Sarkisian’s last day in the music library with him, looking back on a lifetime of memories and a pile of listener mail.  “I just never thought I would be taking up the reins for him,” she said. “It’s really an honor.”

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