Leo Sarkisian, 1921-2018

This past Saturday my friend and mentor Leo Sarkisian was laid to rest in North Andover, Massachusetts.  Leo passed away on Friday June 8.  He was 97 years old.

I met Leo in 1998, I was twenty-five and he was seventy-seven.    We met at an ethnomusicology conference.  I was participating in my first academic conference and dutifully attending all of the sessions related to Africa.  And at each of these sessions, seated near the front of the room, was a short bald man paying close attention.  The published academics, the ones we studied in our graduate seminars, didn't pay him much mind, but at the end of each session this man was surrounded by African scholars.  From esteemed academics like ethnomusicologist Dr. Kwabena Nketia to graduate students from Zimbabwe or Kenya, all of the African participants were eager to talk with this elderly gentleman.  Intrigued, I introduced myself.

I was a first-year graduate student with an existential need to do research in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.  I was intellectually obsessed with the country and my realization of self hinged, precariously, on my being able to see this research project through.  I didn't know anyone who knew anything about Mauritania or who had ever been to Mauritania.  As soon as Leo heard that I was hoping to do research in Mauritania he enthusiastically commented, 'I love Nouakchott.  I was there in the 1970s.  Beautiful music!'  So, it was possible! Nouakchott was a place that existed, that you could go to.  Almost every other scholar I had spoken with had made some comment about, 'how beautiful the beaches of Mauritius must be'.

Leo was a skilled audio engineer and radio producer, a talented musician, and a visual artist.  Leo was curious, intelligent, passionate, and relentless.  He started his career in audio engineering in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the early 1950s, working for the Hollywood record label Tempo records.  He and his wife Mary--they were together for 67 years!--arrived in Ghana in 1958 and spent most of the next eleven years in West Africa (Guinea 1959-1963, Liberia 1964-1969).  Leo recorded a couple hundred reels of exceptional music throughout the continent, including comprehensive surveys of Guinean, Liberian, Sierra Leonean, Burkinabe, and Ghanaian music: Leo travelled extensively across all of these countries with his mobile studio, recording ensembles in village squares and schoolyards.  Leo recorded Fela Kuti and his Koola Lobitos in the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1965 (these recordings remain unreleased), as well as Cardinal Rex Lawson and his group.  He recorded dozens of groups at music festivals in Niger, Morocco, and Tunisia (including unreleased performances of Louis Armstrong).  In the 1970s, he made some of his last recordings in Tanzania. (All of Leo's recordings have been archived by the University of Michigan, they are currently working on making them as well as his radio programs available to scholars.)

 Leo Sarkisian, Ede, Nigeria, August 1965.  Recording the Timi of Ede, Oba Adetoyese Laoye and his group. 

All of these recordings are unreleased and most of them have been little heard.  They were almost all made for Music Time in Africa, the Voice of America radio program that Leo wrote and produced from 1965 to 2004 (the program is still on the air, it is the longest running English language program on the Voice of America).  If Leo's recordings had been commercially released he would likely be as known in music circles as Alan Lomax, Charles Duvelle or Hugh Tracey. 

A lot has been written about Leo's career and his exceptional acheivements.  I don't have much to add to these pieces.  I do, however, have a lot of memories of Leo and a lot to say about the man.  In April 2004, Leo brought me to the Voice of America to write and produce (and eventually present) Music Time in Africa.  Over the next seven years, I spent several hours each week with him, sharing a lunch, listening to music, talking politics, telling stories, or complaining about the absurdities of working for the government.  I have been struggling with how to pay tribute to Leo.

Leo was first and foremost an Armenian-American, deeply proud of his heritage and attached to the Armenian language, to Armenian cuisine and music, and to his community.  Like many Armenian families throughout the Diaspora, Leo and Mary's immediate and extended families suffered greatly in the violent pogroms that repeated themselves across the slow decades during which the Ottomans lost their empire.  Leo's father came to the United States in 1901 from Diyarbakir, Turkey, fleeing the targeted killings of ethnic Armenians in his hometown.  He settled in Haverhill, Massachussetts.

Unlike many Diaspora Armenians, however, Leo remained attached to Turkey, its culture, its language, its food, and its music.  He studied and knew the history of violence against ethnic Armenians, and he never minimized these truths, but Leo was deeply committed to building relationships with Turks and Turkey.  His last overseas trip, when he was in his late 80s, was to Istanbul.  Of all the journeys that Leo made, I think his most memorable trip was the one that took Mary and him back to Diyarbakir.

Leo joined the Africa Division of the Voice of America (which was then part of the United States Information Agency) at a time when most of the broadcast staff were white men.  He was proud that he fought to get the Division to, finally, in the late 1970s, hire Rita Rochelle, an African-American woman from St. Louis, Missouri, to present Music Time in Africa.  For many listeners Rita Rochelle is the voice--and what a voice!-- of Music Time in Africa.  Rita presented the program for 27 years, becoming a household name for a generation of listeners throughout Anglophone Africa.

Leo was usually more interested in talking about current events, the next trip he hoped to take, or the newest music he had heard on Turkish television, than on reliving the experiences of his past.  He nonetheless, in his way, usually through simple aphorisms, shared the wisdom of his eight decades of intensely lived experiences with me.  As Leo was approaching 90, it seemed that every month or so he would get the news of another old friend or acquaintance passing away.  He would share the news with me, say a few words about the deceased (how and when they came into his life) and then say, with serene determination, 'life is for the living'.

Leo's words of wisdom when faced with a particularly intractable problem--short-sighted management, careless broadcasters, craven politicians--were succint and helpful.  Leo would shake his head slightly from side to side, look at me intently and silently for a few seconds from behind his big glasses, and then, in his pronounced Massachusetts accent say, with emphasis, 'the Faackuhs'.  That said it all; they are what they are and you can't do anything about it.  Move on.

I want to end with a few of Leo's recordings that I return to often.

  Leo Sarkisian, Ede, Nigeria, August 1965.  Recording the Timi of Ede, Oba Adetoyese Laoye and his group. 

I have listened to all of Leo's recordings, give or take a reel or two of Liberian percussion, and I think his 1965 Nigeria recordings are his best.  They are superbly recorded and the performances are uniformly interesting.  I have already posted most of these recordings here, here, here, and here.  For your listening pleasure here is one final treasure of Nigerian music.  In August of 1965, Leo, Mary and Tunde Sowande traveled to Ede, in Osun State, southwestern Nigeria, to record the Timi (paramount ruler) of Ede, Oba Adetoyese Laoye and his percussion group. These recordings were made in the Timi's court.

Download Timi of Ede and His Group

From the late 1950s to the mid 1970s Leo also recorded 'modern' groups throughout the continent, from Guinea to Tanzania.  I think the best of these are his recordings of The Heartbeats from Sierra Leone, a group that was led by Geraldo Pino.  I told the story of these recordings a few years back.  Here, as requested over the years, are two complete reels of The Heartbeats (these are less compressed files than the previous ones I posted).  One of the reels is monaural the other stereo.  Which do you prefer?  These are some of the best quality recordings of a 1960s West African bar band that I have heard.

Download The Heartbeats

Finally, a special memorial recording.  Here is a 1953 trio recording of Leo on oud, his wife Mary on dumbek, and their Turkish friend Enver on violin.  Leo made this recording of one of their practice sessions in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Enver was one of Leo's closest friends in Kabul and during their years in Afghanistan Leo practiced regularly with Enver.  This is the music that I think was closest to Leo's heart and soul.  The years Leo and Mary spent in Afghanistan were challenging and immensely rewarding.  I listened to this reel a few times with Leo and he was always moved by this souvenir of his friendship with Enver, of this time in their life. 

Leo, Mary, Enver practice tape, Kabul, Afghanistan. 1953

Thank you Leo,
for giving me a chance,
for rescuing me from a life in academia,
for trusting me,
for sharing with me,
for teaching me.
Rest in Peace


  1. I do not have time to listen now, even to download, but I have really enjoyed reading this tribute, thanks to discrete heroes like this man we keep hope in a global humanity.
    Thank you very much for this work Matthew.
    Rest in Peace Leo.

  2. Sorry for your loss Matthew. It looks like you had a great mentor.

  3. sorry for your loss and i am glad he set you on your path. i look forward to hearing his recordings. robert

  4. Dear Matthew. It is always hard to loose a good friend. I am sure he will live on for a long time in your and now also in our memories. All good wishes, love and strenght also for Leo's family.


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