VOA’s Veteran Music Man Leo Sarkisian Says Goodbye

Posted October 2nd, 2012 at 6:32 pm (UTC-4)

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.

VOA Director David Ensor bidding Leo a final farewell in the English to Africa Service

Chief of English to Africa, Sonya Lawrence-Green shares a moment with Leo and Mary

Leo Sarkisian with wife Mary

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.







Leo and Mary are congratulated by Aliyu Mustapha from VOA’s Hausa Service.


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.

Sonny Side of Sports host, Sonny Young and me, holding the new Music Time in Africa calendar Leo designed for 2012-2013


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.

Leo and I look over a new piece of mail written by a fan of our popular music show that Leo started 47 years earlier.

Leo searches for a special recording that is part of the collection of African music he assembled during his long career.

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 in his element: the Leo Sarkisian Library (with Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour and me)

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.

A painting of Leo among African friends by Anjolangs Art, 2000.

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.
Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

6 responses to “VOA’s Veteran Music Man Leo Sarkisian Says Goodbye”

  1. Timothy Yeboh says:

    Awe! What a day to remember, leo you will always be in my heart with an unconditional love. LONG LIVE VOA, LONG LIVE MTIA, LONG LIVE MATHEAW AND LONG LIVE LEO. I can’t wait to have the program guide and the calender you designed. My add: st joseph catholic church gembu, po box 56 taraba state Nigeria.

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Yes, Timothy, may they enjoy their retirement. They have touched so many lives and still continue to do so today. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Ashenafi Abedje says:

    Thank you Heather for your elegant tribute to our recently retired colleague and friend, Leo. The pictures by Bill Workinger were also wonderful. Leo and his graceful wife Mary leave us so many wonderful memories. Africa and Africans meant everything to the twosome. Wherever they traveled, Africa went with them. They spent their entire lifetime promoting African nusic and culture. Just as VOA honors Leo and Mary for their decades of unparalleled service, Africa too is indebted to these two great human beings for elevating its music and culture on the international stage. Those of us privileged to have worked with Leo and his lovely wife for decades will truly miss their wits and humor. May their retirement be as enjoyable as their long and illustrious career.

  3. p onyango says:

    Hi, I am almost a year late into Leo’s retirement! I had not been paying attention.
    As a New Jerseyan who was born and raised in Kenya, and whose first main primary contact with the USA was through the crackly short wave Radio, VOA and Leo Sarkisian were one of the greatest things to have happened to me!

    In 1986 or 1987 my dad purchased a simple casette player radio player. I used to hoard it at nite and stay awake listening to fascinating stories and music from a land so far away. Leo Sarkisian and Rita Rochelle on Music time in Africa, George Collinet on Sound of Soul,

    I have very strong memories of the sheer joy I experienced as an 18 yr old listening to these guys. Leo’s work and that of others like you Heather will go a long way in securing African music in its right place in history and culture. Please pass my greetings to Leo and his wife Mary. I wanted to introduce them to a New Sensation that is Anyango Nyar Siaya, a Japanese Lady that has embraced and mastered Kenyan Luo instrument Nyatiti and is an accomplished player! She is doing great work and she has a program like your in Japan Radio.


  4. Robert Cohen says:

    Having retired from VOA in 2004, I was also out of the loop as far as learning about Leo’s well-deserved retirement. I just wanted to add that of the hundreds of people I had the pleasure of working with over my l3 years at VOA, Leo was the most fun to work with…a true professional with a great sense of humor and an easygoing demeanor. I always looked forward to engineering MTIA with Leo. I grew up not far from Leo’s home town of Lawrence, Mass. so we had those New England roots in common and both knew some of the broadcasters from that area which made working with Leo that much more enjoyable.
    I hope that once his retirement settles in, he’ll want to come back on occasion and I know the audience would greatly look forward to that.

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Dear Robert,
      Thank you for your comments about Leo. He has come back a few times since his (final) retirement almost one year ago. It is always a pleasure to see him and hear his stories. As I work up my Holiday programs, I continue to dig up his earlier works and get inspiration from them.





Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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