VOA’s ‘Music Man’ Leo Sarkissian Retiring After 50 Years

June 30 2004

VOA’s ‘Music Man’ Retiring After 50 Years of Spinning African Music

United States Department of State (Washington, DC)

June 28, 2004
Posted to the web June 30, 2004

Bruce Greenberg
Washington, DC

They call him “The Music Man” at the Voice of America, where
83-year-old Leo Sarkisian, the indefatigable host of the highly
successful radio show “Music Time in Africa,” has been spinning
Afrocentric music for the masses in sub-Saharan Africa twice every
Sunday for 40 years.

“We are the most popular show on VOA by fan mail received,” Sarkisian
said when interviewed recently in Washington. “Forty percent of VOA’s
listenership is in Africa.”

Sarkisian, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Armenian descent, boasts
that he answers every letter addressed to his show.

“My wife and I devote our weekends to answering our fans,” he says.
“I’m limited by VOA budgetary constraints to mailing a maximum of 500
responses per month, and I do this because when you consider that the
annual income in that region may be about $25.00 a year, and it may
cost some kid 50 cents to buy a stamp to write me telling how he
listens faithfully to my program, and likes it, then I feel an
obligation to respond.

“Most cannot afford computers, but they may go into an Internet café
to e-mail us. You know, I get some 162 e-mails a month from the fans.
And we can’t answer them because they have no regular means of
accessing the Internet, nor do they have a personal e-mail account.
That says something.

“I also send a packet containing my newsletter, the latest VOA
calendar and programming schedule, and even an information brochure
on AIDS twice a year, and it goes out to all my listeners,” he added.

When discussing his retirement at the end of 2004, he says that his
show will go on smoothly without him. “I’ve hand-picked my successor.
He’s a young guy — 30-something — a Ph.D. in African music whom I
met some four years ago at a University of Michigan ethnomusicology
conference. You know, the University of Michigan has one of the
largest African studies programs in the country.

“I’ll still be active, though, because I’ve signed with the State
Department’s speaker programming series, which sent me and my
announcer, Rita Rochelle, on a tour of five Nigerian cities last
spring, where we had a tremendous reception.

“We traveled all over,” he said. Unfortunately, he added, his program
is in danger of losing its base among Muslim populations in Africa
because of budget cuts to programming in Arabic.

Sarkisian recalled his 2003 trip to Namibia, a country he says has
few American visitors. “I spoke at a university, was on television
and radio. They had an exhibition of my paintings [he’s an
accomplished portraitist]; I met with the university art department;
there were visiting dignitaries…”

He continued: “I went to Eritrea during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war,
and had an exhibit of my art there. … Every place I went was

He recalled his first trip to the continent in 1959. He was working
as music director for a media company in Hollywood and was sent to
Ghana to record that country’s folk music.

“Ghana had just become independent in 1958, so I was the first
private American citizen there. I was supposed to stay for about
eight months, but wound up staying for a year, working for Radio
Ghana; then went to Guinea. They had just received their independence
from France. The French departed, leaving little behind. I helped
Radio Conakry get back on the air by helping with the repair of its
broadcasting equipment.”

“Shortly after Edward R. Murrow became head of the U.S. Information
Agency [USIA],” Sarkisian said, “he made his first trip to Africa. In
Guinea, he told the ambassador he wanted to see me. We met, and he
recruited me for USIA. … He told me he wanted USIA to begin
broadcasts to Africa. And that’s how it began.”

During his long career, Sarkisian has had the chance to meet many of
Africa’s influential statesmen and artists, some of whom have
appeared on his program. A recent guest, Queen Lambikiza of the
kingdom of Swaziland, was on a U.S. visit this past May to promote
awareness of HIV/AIDS and the plight of its African victims through
the international release of a CD entitled “Songs of Life.”

The CD, which features such big-name performers as Aretha Franklin
and Paul Simon, is the product of RICA, the Royal Initiative to
Combat AIDS, a non-profit organization launched by her husband, King
Mswati III, whose nation has one of the highest rates of AIDS
infections in the world — almost 40 percent of its adult population
is infected.

Sarkisian added that the queen has a law degree and is an
accomplished singer. “She’s also a composer and has made several
recordings. She said that this is Africa’s way of reaching out to
help itself; to use the medium of music and song to reach the people
of all nations, genders, ages and races with a message of hope.”

The proceeds from “Songs of Life” will be used to combat HIV/AIDS in
14 sub-Saharan nations and to promote worldwide awareness of the

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: