The Leo Sarkisian Collection at Michigan: Preserving, Accessing, and Preparing for Digitization

UMSI Associate Professor Paul Conway is collaborating with Kelly Askew, associate professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies and the founding director of U-M’s African Studies Center, to continue a project that is preserving and preparing for digitization the Leo Sarkisian Collection of African Music.

The collection features more than 10,000 audio reels in addition to 45 rpm singles and cassette tapes from sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the audio tapes were created by Leo Sarkisian, the longtime host of Voice of America’s “Music Time in Africa” radio program.

Start date: 2/1/2015
End date: 1/31/2016

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With a $10,000 grant from the U-M African Studies Center, this project will work to preserve, provide access, and prepare for digitization the Leo Sarkisian Collection of African Music.

The vast and valuable collection is housed at the U-M Library and is on long-term loan from Voice of America to the University of Michigan. 

The collection’s breadth, historical significance, and one-of-a-kind content make it a 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.

“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 said.

Askew’s 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 project will expand these previous digitization efforts to encompass a larger portion of the Sarkisian 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 houses 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.

Read more about Conway's involvement with the Sarkisian Collection here.


The Leo Sarkisian Collection at Michigan: Preserving, Accessing, and Preparing for Digitization, U-M African Studies Center: $10,000


Established in 2008, the African Studies Center (ASC) supports the exchange of scholars, faculty, knowledge, and resources between the University of Michigan and partnering educational institutions in Africa. A member of the U-M International Institute, the center fosters interdisciplinary research projects between the university and African partners to find imaginative solutions to real-world problems.