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.