Voice of America’s ‘Music Time in Africa’ spans cultures and genres

In a recording studio at the foot of Capitol Hill, producer and host Heather Maxwell is in her element, spinning songs, telling tales, breaking into harmony in English and French, and even moving to the music with her guests, four of Cameroon’s biggest pop stars.

It’s “Music Time in Africa” once again.

Each week 12 million or more listeners tune in to the Voice of America broadcast to hear African music, from the latest, chart-topping hip-hop to jazz classics to gospel to the traditional folk songs of different countries and cultures.

It’s a mix that attracts an audience not only in Africa but among the global diaspora and aficionados everywhere.

“Music Time in Africa” is the Voice of America’s longest running English broadcast, begun in 1965 by the late ethnomusicologist Leo Sarkisian, who helped spread the fame of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti.

Sarkisian passed the responsibility in 2012 to Maxwell, a jazz singer and songwriter with a doctorate in ethnomusicology. She grew up singing in her family’s gospel band and once aspired to sing opera. She was a Peace Corps volunteer and later a Fulbright scholar in Mali. A University of Michigan professor recommended her to Sarkisian as uniquely qualified to be his successor.

Today her audience listens not only on shortwave radio but over the internet on social media and even FM radio stations. They can also watch portions on Facebook Live.

Overhead view of Maxwell with papers; glowing 'mic on' sign; Maxwell at microphone (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
Maxwell, an ethnomusicologist and performer, exudes a passion for African music of all kinds during the weekly broadcasts. (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

Maxwell prepares a script, but her spontaneity enlivens the broadcast, taped a few days before it airs. It always begins with a snatch of traditional music, but jumps across the musical map, from Ghana’s highlife to Nigeria’s Afrobeat to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s soukous to Liberia’s hipco.

“You’re in store for an exciting show today for, oh, so many reasons,” she begins. “First I have a fantastic play list, new and old tunes from Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, Zimbabwe, [the] song-of-the-week from Uganda” and Cameroon.

She culls the weekly playlist after spending 25 hours listening to music on the hundreds of CDs that line the walls of her office and new songs that arrive daily. A Grammy-nominated musician from Mali had just submitted one via WhatsApp.

Her guests — Stanley Enow, Magasco, Mr. Leo and Mink’s — were in Washington to headline a Cameroonian music-and-arts festival in suburban Maryland. “We are here to show the world what Cameroon has got,” said Mr. Leo.

“That’s brilliant,” replied Maxwell.

Magasco smiling and looking at Heather Maxwell standing with her arms raised (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
Maxwell dances to the music of Cameroonian artist Magasco (left) in her Voice of America studio. (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

“Every week it’s thrilling and exhausting at the same time,” says Maxwell, who calls this her dream job. “My audience is young, yet I’m not just going to play what they always hear on the radio. I want to entice them to listen to traditions of their own music that maybe they don’t think is cool anymore.”

And at the end of the show, she tells all her listeners, “I hope you’re in a happier place than you were at the top of the hour. Till next week, stay blessed, stay beautiful.”