Long before there was ping-pong diplomacy or perestroika, a short, balding, Armenian American was lugging an enormous reel-to-reel from village to village, sweet-talking people into singing and playing for him.
Leo Sarkisian had the kind of career that today lives only in legend: Hired by famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, he was paid by the U.S. government to travel throughout Africa, visiting every country over half a century and returning with thousands of rare recordings of music that most of the world had never heard.
On Friday, Sarkisian, 91, officially retired from the Voice of America, where the weekly radio show he started 47 years ago, “Music Time in Africa,” is VOA’s longest-running English-language program.
In Africa, he socialized with presidents, military dictators, accomplished musicians and tribal villagers. He outwardly steered away from politics, but under the surface he wove a subtle diplomatic tapestry based around grooving on tunes.
“So many of them had never talked to an American before,” Sarkisian said Friday morning as colleagues gathered around their desks for a coffee-and-doughnut send-off. “The embassies wouldn’t have cultural-affairs officers, so the embassies would use me.”
Listeners across English-speaking Africa grew accustomed to hearing the flat A’s of Sarkisian’s Boston accent, teaching them about the music of their own countries and those of their neighbors.
“He was the man,” said Peter Clottey, a native of Ghana who is now a reporter for the VOA program “Daybreak Africa” and who listened to Sarkisian’s show in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. “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.”
In the words of his wife, Mary, who traveled with him, Sarkisian “just lucked out.” He had enviable leeway, going where he wanted and staying as long as he liked. Often he was met at the airport by dignitaries and admirers.
“I step out of the airplane, and there are all the fans and the military escort into the capital,” Sarkisian recalled of an early trip to Ghana. “VOA, we were so damn important! This was unbelievable. I hate to get political, but that’s gone.”
Sarkisian, whose parents emigrated from Turkey early in the 20th century, had studied art and worked as a commercial artist in New York and a map-drawer for the Army during World War II.
He took an interest in world music at a time when “foreign music was kind of a dirty word here,” he said, and after he wrote a paper on it, he was hired by California-based Tempo Records to go abroad and record music.
Marrying in 1949, he and Mary, also a Massachusetts-born Armenian, started traveling in the Middle East, where, “in the mountains of Afghanistan, in the Hindu Kush mountains, she slept in pup tents while I made sure that the howling wolves wouldn’t come in,” he recalled.
With a knack for languages, he picked up Farsi and some Arabic, in addition to the Turkish, Armenian and French he had learned as a child. As African countries were getting their independence in the 1950s, Tempo sent him to Ghana and then to Guinea, where Murrow caught up with him.
His wife described the day in 1961 that Murrow, then head of the U.S. Information Agency, climbed up seven flights of stairs to their apartment in Conakry, Guinea, because the elevator didn’t work. After listening to some of Sarkisian’s recordings, “he said, ‘That’s marvelous; it’s just like American jazz’ — because it was really jivey,” she recalled. Murrow offered him a job on the spot.
As his wife spoke, Sarkisian smiled and touched her arm. “I’m glad that I had this little balm with me,” he said. “You should have seen her in some villages where I had a corps of about 35 women. . . . She would talk to them, put them at ease. Even the women who would come nursing a baby to the microphone, she put them at ease.”
Although they traveled through Africa during sometimes politically unstable times, the Sarkisians said they never encountered a problem. Being Armenian was a bonus, because many countries had well-established Armenian communities eager to help them.
And spending so much time in Africa helped Sarkisian understand the currents of conflict in Africa well enough to choose music that would resonate. He played songs from both North and South Sudan during fighting there and chose songs from particular villages during ethnic battles in Nigeria.
“The big part of this music is to let them know that we’re interested in them,” he said.
He recorded Louis Armstrong performing in Tunis, and he discovered African musicians who would later become legends themselves, such as Fela, whom he first recorded in Lagos, “before he was anything.”
“It helped raise pan-African awareness . . . and status of some of the musicians,” said Jonathan Kertzer, associate professor of music at the University of Alberta in Canada and director of its Folkways Alive center. “He was a true pioneer.”
Sarkisian’s recordings, which VOA Director David Ensor called “one of the most valuable and sought-after collections in the world,” reside in the basement of VOA, in the Leo Sarkisian Library of African Music, and the collection is gradually being digitized by the University of Michigan’s African studies department.
The library is stacked with reels of tape, vinyl records, and art and hand-carved gifts from African friends. It provides a trove of material for Heather Maxwell, director for African music for VOA’s English to Africa service who is taking over Sarkisian’s role as host and producer of “Music Time in Africa.”
“I just never thought I would be taking up the reins for him,” she said. “It’s really an honor.” Because of funding cuts and security concerns, her job is unlikely to entail the same kind of freewheeling travel that his did.
Standing in the library, Sarkisian leafed through a stack of handwritten fan letters, many from children. All get replies from Sarkisian or his wife. “A country like Burkina Faso, with $25 per year per family, Mary said a little kid in a country like that, he has to be answered,” he said.
“A big thanks to my/our elder brother Leo Sarkisian for his dedication and untireless work he has done for music time in Africa,” wrote a listener from Zambia.
A listener from Nigeria wrote to “felicitate” the United States on the killing of Osama bin Laden. “You see, these people are on our side,” Sarkisian said, holding up the letter. “This is the satisfaction we get — in making friends with the people who believe in us.”
In Bangui, Central African Republic, Sarkisian recalled a radio director who couldn’t quite believe an American had traveled so far for African music. “He said, ‘You came all this way to visit us?’ ” Sarkisian said. “I said, ‘Yeah, this is what we do.’ ”
Now, Sarkisian said he plans to do more painting (he has done many portraits of the Africans he met), and playing the kanun, a 74- string Middle Eastern lap harp. He drinks a glass of raki every day, has perfect recall of decades-old phone numbers, and still can’t help raising his arms and shuffling his feet whenever African music plays.