June 2015 Update: The Leo Sarkisian African Music Collection Moves to Michigan
Back in 1963 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, Leo Sarkisian was offered a job by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. At the time Murrow was the head of the USIA (United States Information Agency) and he had heard enough about Leo’s West African recording trips to want to recruit Leo for the Africa Service of the Voice of America. Leo accepted Murrow’s offer and soon started working for the Voice of America in Monrovia, Liberia. Two years later, in 1965, Leo launched Music Time in Africa a weekly program that features traditional and contemporary music from all of Africa. Forty-seven years later the program (now the longest running VOA program) is still on the air every weekend, and continues to reach millions of listeners throughout Africa.
What is the archive?
In short, it is a room in the basement of the Cohen building in downtown Washington DC that is overflowing with audio reels (over 10,000), 45 rpm singles, 33 rpm lps, and cassettes from every country in Africa.
Where did all this music come from?
Most of it is music that over the last fifty years Leo has either recorded himself, been given (by producers, artists and radio stations), or that he received in the mail from listeners. A smaller but growing portion however comes from me and Matthew Lavoie who, like our respected predecessor acquire new music each time we go to Africa. Some of the music recordings we collect are commercially recorded and others are those that we record ourselves during live events such as music festivals, ceremonial events, or concerts. Between the three of us we’ve been to every country in Africa since the early 1960s. A few of the archive’s treasures include Leo’s recordings of the Guinean group Beyla Jazz (who became the famous Bembeya Jazz), his non-commercially released recordings of Nigerian music giants Fela Kuti and Cardinal Rex Lawson, stunning field recordings of traditional music from Niger, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and hundreds of Kenyan 45s from the 1970s, and cassettes from Burundi, Mauritania and Malawi. My contributions come in the form of cassette, video, and cds of traditional and commercially recorded music from Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast, and South Africa.
We are continually working on preserving the Sarkisian archive and sharing it with our devoted listeners and viewers.