Music Time in Africa: A Narrative Timeline of 50 Years on Air
The music radio program “Music Time in Africa” from the English to Africa Service of VOA celebrates its 50th Anniversary of broadcasting African music to Africa this month.
A Golden Anniversary of practically any kind is generally a good reason for celebration. But in the context of radio, not to mention the music industry, a 50 year-old music show is little short of a miracle. Reflecting on its amazing longevity, and on what it takes to keep the show relevant to African audiences today, I’ve detected a little magic in Music Time in Africa.
1965: Leo’s Launch from Monrovia
In May of 1965 the first radio broadcast of Music Time in Africa rang out from VOA short-wave transmitters from Mambo Point, Liberia. The 30- minute, hosted radio show presented African music across the African continent in the English language.The program’s creator was Leo Sarkisian (born January 4, 1921). Leo collected original music and cultural information directly from the place and people who made it and used the material as content for his weekly broadcasts. He recorded music himself, collected it from radio stations, and from listeners and local musicians.
1968-1978: The Early Broadcasts from Washington D.C.
In 1968, the VOA Program Center in Monrovia closed. Everyone moved back to Washington, D.C. including Leo who became the VOA Music Director of the Africa Division. In 1969, he added co-host Sue Moran who delivered a scripted text that greeted African listeners and cushioned each selection of music with a pleasant, mid-western voice. Leo would often come on air in the middle of the show having “just gotten back” from another African country or region. He would introduce the newest thing he’d just recorded or acquired from a national radio station. Listen to the excerpt below from a 1973 broadcast:
Leo Sarkisian gradually built an empire of Music Time in Africa, feeding it with yearly months-long trips to Africa where he would record and acquire more music. He set up a library to house the vinyl and bulky reel-to-reel recordings and worked there splicing tape, writing weekly scripts, conducting research, preparing Africa tours, and corresponding with his ever-growing fan base.
1978-2004: Leo and Rita
In 1978, Leo recruited Rita Rochelle Hunt to co-host Music Time in Africa. He then applied his artistic and promotional talents to develop a powerful marketing campaign for the radio show. “Pictures of Rita, Rita on VOA Music Time in Africa annual calendars, and her name and Leo’s became household names throughout Africa”, writes Mary Sarkisian in her unpublished memoir “…The Last Three Feet: Life and Travels of Mary & Leo Sarkisian.”
During most of the 1980s, Leo and Rita toured many Africa countries together, promoting the show and collecting African music. The team lasted twenty five years. On air and off, Leo used his emcee and sound engineering skills during these tours to connect with local audiences. His reputation as “Leo the Music Man” skyrocketed as did requests by American embassies to invite him for appearances, talks, and presentations on African music and art. An accomplished artist as well, he attracted audiences of all kinds through art workshops and exhibits. In 2004, Leo semi-retired at age 83. He and his wife devoted every weekend to correspondence with listeners. Leo continued to write newsletters, make calendars, build his mailing list and answer fan mail. “I’m limited by VOA budgetary constraints to mailing a maximum of 500 responses per month,” he said in one interview.
2005-2011: Transition and Expansion
Rita Rochelle left VOA in 2005 and Music Time in Africa came under the direction of ethnomusicologist Matthew Lavoie. At the same time, VOA appointed Sonya Lawrence-Greene (pictured below) as the new English to Africa (E2A) service chief. Recognizing the power of music in attracting young African audiences, Greene initiated a new era of expanded music programming within the Service. In addition to Music Time in Africa, Greene added three more music shows to E2A streams: African Music Mix, African Beat, and Hip Hop Connection. Additional play times were also increased for Music Time in Africa and the new programs.
Matthew Lavoie’s seven-year tenure as the new Music Man brought two exciting changes to the program. First, he created a blog called African Music Treasures, featuring rare recordings from Leo’s library and new music acquired during Matthew’s own trips to Africa and Europe.
The blog functioned as a type of open forum on older music that invited readers to listen directly to the songs on embedded links and then comment on them. In a post, he published “Lost Liberian 45s from the 1960s“, for example, Matthew featured several 45s on vinyl that post elicited 13 responses from readers that contributed further to the history and understanding of the music. Below is one such comment posted on August 17, 2011 by a Mr. Earl Burrowes:
“A belated thanks for sharing some of Leo’s amazing recordings. I interned with him in 1963 at the VOA recording studio – then located across the street from the US Embassy – and to this day remember him very fondly. He was also an amazing artist and when I completed my internship he did a sketch (cartoon) for me that I treasure till this day, It’s a cut-away of the office building showing him (Leo) turning up the volume on a speaker that is vibrating the office above him when his boss (Noon) is rattled reading a quivering newspaper. True Leo sense of humor.
By the way, In the first recording of Melody 8 (Amore in Twist) I hear John Feweh Sherman on the guitar. John, who later became Minister of Commerce Industry and Transportation, and I were college classmates and he played for Melody 8 regularly to supplement his family income. He was executed by the military junta on April 22, 1980.
The second change Matthew brought to Music Time was that he lengthened its running time from thirty to sixty minutes.
Leo continued to work weekends as a contractor responding to fan mail and sending newsletters, calendars, and program guides to 500 individual addresses per month. He and Matthew called themselves the “A Team”.
2012-Present: Today with Heather Maxwell
In 2012, I joined the VOA to take the helm as host and producer of Music Time in Africa. In the past three years, I’ve also made a few changes as well as preserved some traditions of our beloved program. As for the changes, the three most significant are social media, television, and digital. Since I came on board, Music Time now enjoys an active presence on Soundcloud, Facebook , Twitter, and YouTube.
Today, listeners from all over Africa engage with Music Time by watching, listening, and writing via these multi-media platforms. Messages, posts, comments and tweets now constitute the majority of our fan mail. Musicians send videos and sound files of their own music for consideration, as well.
Listen below to a 2015 Music Time in Africa radio show from Soundcloud.
Here’s one recent testimonial from a Nigerian listener I received by email:
Hello My Dear Heather,
Warmest greetings from your friend and regular listener, Olufemi Ojumu, at the Ondo State Radiovision Corporation, Akure City in Nigeria. Its easier now to monitor your beautiful programmes on VOA live streaming with my Android phone and Laptop. Please keep up the good job you are doing in making Africa a place of pride. A Nigerian adage says, “If a child is able to appreciate what you gave him yesterday, he automatically gets another gift today.” Allow me to thank you for the 2013/2014 VOA Calendar sent to me last year. Kindly remember to send 4 copies of the 2015 calendar to me as this year winds up.
My regards to David Vandy on the African Beat, and Leo Sarkisian who retired but is never tired.
God bless Nigeria. God bless America.
Mr. Olufemi Ojumu,
The blog also has a new twist. Moving away from its original, historical angle, today it showcases live performances and stories of living artists.
The new blog also features stories of my own Africa tours where I continue the tradition of acquiring new and rare music for programming and, like Leo, giving appearances, presentations and talks upon requests by American embassies. My Music Time talent (outside of hosting and producing the radio show) is singing. This excerpt was filmed in Nyundo, Rwanda in May, 2014 during one such tour. We’re singing “Malaika”by Fadhili William Mdawida.
The third major development of Music Time today is the preserving and digitizing of the Sarkisian Collection. In 2013, the Library of Congress inducted Music Time in Africa radio shows into the National Registry of Recorded Sound. In 2015, Leo’s collection of African music was moved to the University of Michigan to undergo long-term curating and digitizing.
Leo Goes Home
In the same year Leo turned in his official Voice of America badge for the very last time, and retired (again) at age 91. Within three months of his collection’s departure for Ann Arbor, Leo and wife Mary departed from their Maryland home of 44 years to settle back home in their native state of Massachusetts. Listen here as Leo describes his feelings about retiring and going home:
Much has already been written about the living legend and founder of Music Time in Africa, Leo Sarkisian. For more information, a scroll through this blog takes you to several accounts of his earliest years recording and collecting music in Africa with his wife, Mary. A Google search can take you to a Wikipedia entry, a front page article in the Washington Post, a full-length story on PRI, and other numerous TV features.
Times have changed many aspects of the beloved Music Time in Africa since Mambo Point, Monrovia, 1965, but history has shown that we know how to roll with the times. What will we sound and look like in 2065? It’s anyone’s guess but my bet lies somewhere in the heart of elder Leo’s favorite African proverb: When door open, go in.