Music Time in Africa Archive Delivers Voice of America Radio Show

By Paul Conway, University of Michigan

Music Time in Africa is the longest-running radio show from the Voice of America (VOA), the official broadcast agency of the United States government. Because of legal constraints only removed by the US Congress in 2013, generations of listeners on the African continent only have ever heard the shows. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, nearly 600 unique digitized audio recordings and associated scripts, spanning the first thirty years of the show’s broadcast (1968-1998), are now available for streaming through an internet platform at the University of Michigan. The Music Time in Africa Archive is a rich resource for African musical heritage wrapped in the distinctive messaging for audiences in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

The website for the Music Time in Africa Archive provides ample information about the origins and development of the archive. The website also provides direct access to the custom built online platform (click on “Listen”) that supports faceted metadata browsing, full-text search of the digitized program scripts, and streaming audio access to the radio programs. The surviving recordings show evidence of cannibalization of earlier program tape recordings for later shows and suggests a high level of re-broadcasting of earlier shows, which is a common practice for programs requiring a weekly program for 52 weeks every year. Plans for 2021 include releasing 106 shows that lack program scripts and an additional 320 original shows created by host Matthew Lavoie (2007-2012) and current host Heather Maxwell (2012-2018).

Fig. 1. Music Time in Africa Archive

Leo Sarkisian, the man behind the VOA’s Music Time in Africa had a big personality, a love for all forms of music and dance, and a passion for bringing “African music to Africa.” Leo (as he was universally and affectionately known) spent over a decade as a sound engineer with Tempo Records, a Hollywood-based company that trained him to produce original, on-location recordings of sounds and music for film soundscapes. Leo traveled with his wife Mary through over thirty-eight newly decolonized African nations, creating a unique and rich collection of live field recordings.

In 1963, legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow approached him with a job at VOA. His charge was first to support the radio stations of new sub-Saharan nations with his technical expertise—Radio Ghana and Radio Conakry initially, and later Radio Dahomey, Radio Tanzania, Radio Doula (to name but a few). Murrow also asked him to create an entertainment-based radio broadcast as part of a mission to introduce American perspectives to a post-colonial Africa, which he would go on to do for nearly 50 years. Leo’s work simultaneously advanced the causes of African independence and American political influence.

The first broadcast of Music Time in Africa was in May 1965. Production for the show began in Liberia’s VOA Program Center, and then relocated permanently to the agency’s headquarters in Washington D.C. in 1968 when Leo became the VOA Music Director of the Africa Division. For most of five decades, Music Time in Africa was a once-per-week 30-minute program, pre-recorded on Wednesday mornings and broadcast on Sunday evenings (18:30 GMT). The timing of the broadcast attracted listeners across sub-Saharan Africa just prior to a major two-hour news broadcast on Sunday evenings, African Panorama. Music Time in Africa was and continues to be a highly choreographed and fully scripted performance of intertwined words and music. Beginning with the first program, Leo assembled musical selections by stringing together recordings drawn from the extensive collections in the program’s music library. Leo worked exclusively with fresh ¼-inch tape, “ripping” selections from 45-rpm singles or 33-1/3 rpm LPs as necessary, and extracting excerpts from his live field recordings or recordings sent to him by radio stations in Africa. Sometimes Leo included listener-contributed materials, fostering a strong ongoing relationship with local audiences and musicians.

Figure 2. Leo Sarkisian and host Rita Rochelle, 1982.

A series of very talented and increasingly popular announcers performed the scripts around the selections “inserted” into the program at specifically-timed intervals: Bryn Poole (1965-67), Miatta Fahnbulleh (1968), Susan Moran (1968–1978), Rita Rochelle (1978–2005), Matthew Lavoie (2005–2012), and Heather Maxwell (2012–present). Each of these hosts, a number being women of color, projected a personal interest in the listener experience while crediting Leo Sarkisian for the intellectual content. Leo was a regular “guest” on his own program, which afforded him a continuing presence for his listener base and personalized the program around his first-hand knowledge of oral traditions, performing arts, rituals, festive events, traditional knowledge and artisanship.

In 2012, the Library of Congress inducted Music Time in Africa into the National Registry of Recorded Sound, highlighting the show from 29 July 1973, which was actually a rebroadcast of the original 12 March 1972 broadcast. You can listen to this show here in the Music Time in Africa Archive. Leo joins host Sue Moran in exploring the musical structures, instruments and social contexts of Mauritanian music. In the show, as Leo explains the complexity of Mauritanian musical theory, excerpts allow audiences to hear the difference in timbre of the tidinit versus the ardin, and the vocal style of Mounnina, one of Mauritania’s famed female stars, versus that of Sidi Ahmed El Bakay Ould Awa, a tidinit virtuoso. The careful attention in this show to gender parity, to history, to the intricacies of a distinctive musical system understood on its own terms are hallmarks of Music Time in Africa and the scholarly work of Leo Sarkisian.

Figure 3. Music Time in Africa Archive, 12 March 1972.

Leo Sarkisian died June 8, 2018, at the age of 97, ahead of his wife Mary, who died in February 2019.

His legacy of Music Time in Africa lives in VOA’s current broadcasts and in the Leo and Mary Sarkisian Collection at the University of Michigan, which hosts and maintains Music Time in Africa Archive. Leo would be happy if you took a listen.

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About the blog: This post is part of the series, “Amplifying Archives: Collections Highlights,” one of several features in the RPTF Education and Outreach Division’s Blog. For more information, including calls for submission, check out our first post.

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