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UMSI faculty helping to bring rare and valuable African music archive to U-M

Leo Sarkisian scoured sub-Saharan Africa to collect and create thousands of original recordings.

One of the world’s most valuable and distinctive archives of music recordings will soon call the University of Michigan its home.

The Leo Sarkisian Collection of African Music features more than 10,000 audio reels in addition to 45 rpm singles and cassette tapes from sub-Saharan Africa, most of which were created by Leo Sarkisian, the longtime host of Voice of America’s “Music Time in Africa” radio program. The collection is a record of the VoA radio broadcasts and the federal agency’s longstanding engagement with post-colonial Africa. On long-term loan from VoA to the University of Michigan, the collection will be housed in the U-M Library.

The collection’s breadth, historical significance, and one-of-a-kind content make it a remarkably useful resource for students and faculty studying not just the music of Africa, but also archives and preservation, anthropology, history, political science, and communication studies, according to Paul Conway, associate professor of information in the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI).

“The Sarkisian Collection will be a great resource for students and faculty across the University of Michigan,” Conway said. “At UMSI, we will make use of the collection in courses on archival processing and the preservation of sound recordings and provide opportunities for students to work directly with these unique materials.” Conway is seeking grant funding to support the organization and cataloging of the collection, as well as selective digitization of the most valuable and useful parts of the collection.

Sarkisian is regarded as one of the most experienced and knowledgeable specialists on African music in the latter half of the 20th century. For 47 years he worked for the US Information Agency under Edward R. Murrow documenting African music from across the continent, and also helping newly independent African nations establish their own national radio stations. He scoured sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia, to collect and create recordings in support of his weekly radio broadcast called “Music Time in Africa,” which first went on the air in 1965 and has been broadcast weekly ever since.

The collection encompasses rare and valuable unpublished field recordings that Sarkisian made while visiting remote towns and villages as well as urban centers. The majority of the tapes, however, are recordings of the radio broadcasts, sometimes featuring interviews with African musicians such as the internationally renowned Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Until the collection can be digitized, the U-M Library will be the only place a listener will be able to listen to these recordings.


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