Last Friday was a bittersweet day, particularly for me, as well as for my colleagues in the English to Africa Service and other departments at the Voice of America: At age 91, Leo Sarkisian, founder of the radio program Music Time in Africa and pioneering African music collector, officially retired from the agency after what he called “a pretty good run.” His retirement send-off began in our offices at 8:30 in the morning – actually a very late start for Leo since he usually arrives to work by 4:00 a.m. – where an excited crowd from all corners of the VOA waited to pay their respects to Elder Leo and his wife, Mary. Our own Bill Workinger of the English to Africa Service captured some of the morning’s sentiment on film.
Tara Bahrampour of the Washington Post was among the guests to honor Sarkisian, and wrote a beautiful article on his life’s work that includes photographs, video and sound files of Leo’s broadcasts. Check it out.
As most of you know, I am Leo’s successor as the new MTIA host, music collector and curator of the Sarkisian Music Library, so the events of this special day brought home the realization: Boy, I have big shoes to fill! Watch the last five minutes of our TV interview on the VOA’s In Focus program that we did together on the afternoon of his retirement party.
Over the past several months since I came on board in April with VOA, Leo has vigilantly trained me in matters related to listener correspondence, program content, and curating his collection. He has led me around the enormous Voice of America Headquarters, personally introducing me to all of the people that I will need to know in order to carry on his work. “You’ve got to respond to the listeners,” he would say. On Sunday mornings Leo and Mary would walk me through their production-line technique of mailing out listener packets to Africa: MTIA calendars, newsletters, self-addressed return envelopes, program guides, and VOA stationery that Leo designs himself by hand.
On several other occasions while orienting me to the library, Leo would stop what he was doing, open his arms out to all corners of the library and say, “Look around at all this beautiful music! This is all YOURS now!”
Leo, with his small stature but giant presence, gleams with pride and wonder when he talks about Africa, music, radio, and the Voice of America. I have great plans for the future to build on his legacy, and keep our radio show and music library relevant for today’s audiences in Africa. We are currently digitizing the Sarkisian collection and building a comprehensive database. Leo started this project a few years ago with partners at the University of Michigan, Associate Professor and founding Director of the African Studies Center Dr. Kelly Askew, and Converging Technologies Consultant Tom Bray. I’m planning an upcoming music mission to Zanzibar and other East African countries in early 2013, and will continue to provide new and exciting editions of Music Time in Africa every week.
Leo started MTIA in 1965, making it – at 47 years – the longest-running English language program in VOA history In addition to his work in music, Mr. Sarkisian is also an accomplished artist. Below is an oil painting – not by Leo – but by a fellow African artist inspired by one of his visits to the continent in 1990.
Leo and Mary both look forward to getting back to work in his art studio now that he’s going to have more time on his hands. The main reason Leo has finally retired, though, is “to take care of my wife. ” I’ve heard him say that often in recent days and always with a smile.
- Above, Leo gives his wife a kiss on the cheek as he marks the end of an amazing career at VOA that began when he was hired by Edward R. Murrow in the early 1960s. Although they say goodbye to VOA, Music Time in Africa is not saying goodbye to them. The radio show that I now host continues its pan-African, multi-genre and cross-generational programming just as Leo had envisioned and shaped it in 1965. Original music and interviews from the Sarkisian library are also integral elements of the weekly shows, and as our digitization work expands to include Leo’s own shows, we will all continue to enjoy hearing from the VOA Music Man of Africa.