Ethical Access to Music Time in Africa

UMSI professor Paul Conway will lead a project to digitize and disseminate Leo Sarkisian Archive materials ethically. The project focuses on the preservation and dissemination of music, scripts and broadcast recordings from the Voice of America radio program Music Time in Africa, including field recordings made beginning in the early 1960s. Co-principal investigators include Kelly M. Askew, U-M professor of anthropology and Afroamerican and African studies, and UMSI clinical associate professor David A. Wallace. Shannon Zachary and Robert McIntyre of U-M Library will also work on the project.

Start date: 6/1/2016
End date: 5/31/2018

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Music Time in Africa is the oldest and longest running English-language radio program broadcast to the African continent by the Voice of America. Ethnomusicologist Leo Sarkisian created the weekly program in the early 1960s. Leo recorded hundreds of hours of original field recordings in at least 38 newly decolonized African nations and utilized selections from these and other regional recordings as the raw material for weekly 30-minute broadcasts. He scripted the broadcasts – based on his first-hand knowledge of musical genres and cultures of the African continent – which were then performed by a series of popular announcers.

Music Time in Africa radio programs have never been heard since the original broadcasts or beyond the deep and wide listener base in Africa, so opening the program and its underlying live field recordings will be a revelation about cross-cultural musical heritage. The purpose of “Ethical Access to Music Time in Africa” is to provide online access to US audiences and the wider world to the radio programs from 1965 to 1989, along with a wide selection of Leo’s original field recordings and the associated scripts that anchor the music in its cultural context.

In the context of the project, “ethical access” involves attempting to overcome some of the substantial legal barriers to listening online to live musical recordings by collaborating with performers and their communities in the management of their cultural heritage. The project is an important exploration of the relationship between musical heritage and the interpretive power of vocal expression through radio programming. The products of the project are primary sources for teaching and scholarship in a wide range of disciplines, including literature, history, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and cultural, media, and information studies. 

“Ethical Access to Music Time in Africa” is a partnership between the University of Michigan and the Voice of America. The project encompasses the digitization and delivery of a selection of radio programs, scripts, and associated live field recordings from the Leo Sarkisian Archive. The plan of work calls for three integrated activities: digitization; delivery systems integration; and performer-oriented access management. Initial steps include the creation of preservation masters of 900 reels of tape, digitization (image and full text OCR) of radio program scripts, and the audio file processing of these digital products to create textual transcriptions. An innovative, open-source online interface will permit exploration of the corpus and the juxtaposition of audio streaming and script texts. In conjunction with the Voice of America’s listener outreach programs, the project will identify and engage performer communities about the release of field recordings and tracks included in the radio broadcasts. 

The preservation of and access to audiovisual resources is the “brittle books” crisis of the 21st century, a crisis that begs for action and requires innovative solutions to very knotty problems of access and use. The primary outcomes of the project are a model for ethically and culturally sensitive online / web-based distribution of digitized musical recordings and a demonstration of the power of community engagement in managing musical intellectual property. The project will also make available an amazing variety of beautiful and influential African music in the context of its original shortwave radio broadcast.

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National Endowment for the Humanities: Ethical Access to Music Time in Africa, $260,000

This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor