“WHEN THE DOOR IS OPEN, GO IN… IT’S THE LAST THREE FEET THAT MATTERS”
That’s the motto of the late Leo Sarkisian, the legendary music show host and master portrait artist of the Voice of America Africa Division for more than a half century.
Leo, 97, passed away at his home near Boston June 8 with his loyal wife and partner Mary at his side. She travelled with Leo and assisted him on many of his trips abroad as one of America’s best known ethnomusicologists. Leo visited 50 countries of the African continent and 30 additional European and Asian nations as well, including of course, Armenia.
His VOA association began in 1962, when last century’s most famous journalist and later director of the U.S. Information Agency Edward R. Murrow climbed six flights of stairs with the U.S. ambassador to Leo’s and Mary’s modest quarters in a high rise apartment in Conakry, Guinea. It was Ed Murrow who famously first spoke of the “last three feet” as the most important aspect of public diplomacy.
Struck by the Sarkisians’ natural friendliness, charm and knowledge of African music, Murrow offered Leo a job at the VOA Africa Division — and the rest ranks as among the most exciting stories in the Voice’s 76- year history.
Over the years, the Sarkisian team, both of whom were born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, were welcomed by musicians and audiences throughout Africa’s vast continent. They often traveled even to upcountry villages to make friends of local musicians and their families.
Such was the impact of Music Time in Africa, Leo’s longest running English language music program, and of his painted portraits of African masters of music and common folk he charmed in his countless audiences over nearly a half century on the road. You can find some of these portraits at http://www.gallerymiriam.com/gallery/artgallery/leo-sarkisian
As Mary Sarkisian recalled in her diary:
“Leo and I made many trips to various regions in Liberia, recording and collecting the traditional folk music of the 16 different tribes in the country. While he would be busy setting up his equipment, I would help set up all the microphones on the stands, sometimes a dozen of them when recording large female groups of 30 to 40 voices. Most of the women probably had never been in front of a microphone before, so I would talk to them so they wouldn’t be afraid.
“And always, after recording, Leo would set up his large amplifiers and play back the recordings so they could hear their voices for the first time. That always went over big, especially with the tribal chiefs. And there would always be a celebration in the village, the drums beating and everyone dancing. Yes, we were up also, taking part in the dancing.”
Perhaps the most moving moment, was when Leo was accompanied on a trip by former Music Time in Africa co-anchor Rita Rochelle. Leo gave his usual enthusiastic talk, thumping his feet to the rhythms and beats of music he played on his tape recorder. The children, fascinated to meet them in person, responded enthusiastically, and sang The Star Spangled Banner for the two U.S. visitors. Rita broke into tears. At first, the kids were crestfallen. Had they done something wrong? “Not at all,” Leo quickly explained. “Those were tears of joy.”
Negussie Mengesha, VOA Africa Division director, in a tribute a few days ago, said “Leo’s passion for VOA’s audience in Africa was unmatched. He lectured at universities, schools and U. S. embassies throughout the continent. Leo amassed a treasure trove of recordings of ethnic music and discovered and popularized some of Africa’s better known musicians. He spent years working with the University of Michigan to digitize these rare recordings. He also shared music with African radio stations as well as the Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress.
Leo’s successor as host of Music Time in Africa is Heather Maxwell, also an ethnomusicologist recruited by Leo when he retired in 2014. She described Leo as “a true gentleman and lover of the beautiful things in life.”
Many of Leo’s trips to Africa were sponsored and funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. His programs and lecturers in the field included both American contemporary music as well the latest in his on-the-scene recordings in Africa.
In 2014, former VOA Director David Ensor presided over a ceremony dedicating the Voice’s Studio 23 to Leo Sarkisian, with Leo and his partner Mary beaming or occasionally shedding tears, all the while. As an observer and veteran retired VOA correspondent David Hyatt recalled: “Studio 23 is the final stop for visitors to VOA which means that thousands each year will become aware of Leo Sarkisian and his life’s work. How’s that for a touch of humanity?”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More