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

Longtime "Music Time in Africa" host Leo Sarkisian stands with his wife Mary in the library that housed his extensive collection of radio broadcasts and original recordings from Africa. In the background are loyd Mbabu, U-M Librarian for African Studies, and Kelly Askew, associate professor in the U-M Departments of Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies.

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.

Paul Conway

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. 

Conway has incorporated some previously-digitized recordings of Sarkisian’s material into an MCubed research project with Kelly Askew, associate professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies, and David Wallace, clinical associate professor at UMSI. MCubed is a U-M seed-funding program that brings together faculty from different disciplines to pursue exploratory research initiatives with potentially major societal impact.

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

The project is just one example of the collection’s interdisciplinary potential, as the study aims to launch a web-based content management platform that will not only increase user access, but allow listeners to comment on and help catalog the material while researchers can study the engagement of communities with the music and help foster creative approaches to managing the copyrights in the recordings.

Askew, who also serves as founding director of U-M’s African Studies Center, was instrumental in bringing the Sarkisian collection to U-M. Her scholarship in East Africa and her previous efforts to review and organize the Sarkisian Collection’s tape recordings led to an agreement between UM and Voice of America in 2010 to digitize a selection of 350 of Sarkisian’s field recordings. Among them is the only known recording of Louis Armstrong performing in the Tunis Festival of 1967.

This past summer, Askew and Conway learned that VoA had plans to relocate the entire Sarkisian collection to remote, underground storage in order to preserve it. A collaborative effort by the U-M faculty members, the library, and Heather Maxwell, the current host of VoA’s “Music Time in Africa,” helped finalize the agreement that loans the collection to U-M for purposes of preservation, digitization, and use.

“The original agreement was centered on digitizing 100 tapes,” Conway said. “The first effort was really a miniscule portion of the collection—a mere suitcase full of tapes—and now we’re about to receive the whole Sarkisian collection. This project is a boon for Michigan students and faculty.”

By hosting the entire collection and making it available in original formats and digital reproductions, U-M will be able to invest some of its own resources to inventory and create archival access for researchers, students and those interested in African music, and potentially develop courses, research studies and other programs to fully utilize and expand the reach of the recordings. With the external funding support, the university will also be able to build on previous digitization efforts in order to preserve a much larger portion of the Sarkisian Collection’s irreplaceable content. 

Posted October 9, 2014