Leo Sarkisian: Music time in Ann Arbor
"When a door opens, go in."
Leo Sarkisian has built a six-decade career in music and radio on that proverb, which he shared in a lecture on "Travels & Ethnomusicology" today in the gallery of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.
The musician and former World War II topographical artist was living in New York City. He loved music, but was bothered by the limited forms of critique and how many types of music get left out of the conversation, he said. He took to the New York Public Library by night to learn all he could about the music of places like Afghanistan, China and Africa, and produced a piece voicing his criticisms.
Soon, Sarkisian says he heard a knock on the door. It was the head of Tempo Records. Would Sarkisian be interested in working with music and moving out to Hollywood to do it? The young man said he was.
After a year at Tempo, preparing audio for use in films, television shows and commercials, the boss came at him with another opportunity: move to Washington, D.C. and learn everything about audio technology. That's the opportunity that led to a career traveling the world in search of new music.
Once Sarkisian got a few years of experience under his belt, his big break came in 1963 when Edward R. Murrow hired him to join the new Voice of America radio. "Music Time in Africa" first appeared in 1965, and 45 years later, remains a staple of the program. Sarkisian recently passed that torch to musicologist Matthew LaVoie, but still appears on the air from time to time.
Sarkisian is regarded by some in his field as the most knowledgeable and experienced African ethnomusicologist in the game. At the age of 89, with more than 60 years of experience and recordings in every African country, it stands to reason that he might be.
But Sarkisian didn't just come to town to talk about himself. After a brief background, he dove right into the work, reading ethnomusicologies on Africa from modern times to antiquity and playing clips that highlight what he sees in African music, and what the viewer might see, too, if he knew what to look for.
Sarkisian's explanation of the customs of a master drummer — setting individual tones for lesser players, jumping in to check that they've kept the tone, then adding embellishments to all of it and his own beat at the end — opened a lot of eyes into how African music is made.
Monday was the first night of a two-part lecture series. The first part was about his work in Africa, while Tuesday night's installment is about the archives Sarkisian recently granted the university to digitize.
Tom Bray, converging technologies consultant at U-M, said that digitization has already begun, but he had no timetable when the collection would be viewable online. Digitization is a piecemeal effort between U-M and Voice of America. First, VOA sends out about 50 tapes; when those are digitized and sent back, VOA inspects them and sends out the next batch.
When the digitization effort is over — and everything from music to field notes from Sarkisian's recordings to sticky notes on tape cases will be scanned — only Voice of America, the National Archives, and the University of Michigan will possess the "thousands of reels, cassettes, and vinyl records" from Sarkisian's Voice of America recordings.
Meanwhile, a collection of Sarkisian's instruments are being left to the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments.
Part II of Sarkisian's lecture series is on Tuesday night is at 6:30 p.m. at the Pittsfield Branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.