The musician talks about his incredible ascent, royal fans, and family ties.
With his name written in lights outside the 2 286-seat London Palladium theater, Guy Manoukian is reveling in the moment. The multimillion record selling artist regularly cuts a stylish figure in custom-made Hugo Boss and Dior suits, and on this mild spring night, the effect is no different. The collar of his crisp white shirt is unbuttoned and along with a loosened tie, hint at a rebellious nature. Manoukian has earned a devout following over the years. Unsurprisingly, he’s also built a firm A-list fan base, including Salma Hayek (who he calls “amazing”) and Arab royalty. Surrounded by his family ahead of his show, there is one person noticeably missing – his late father, Gabriel Manoukian, who had played an instrumental part in developing his 26-year-long career.
Originally printed in the Fall 2018 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Minutes before taking to the stage to perform his hits “Harem” and “Freedom” in front of the sell-out audience, Manoukian slips on a treasured timepiece, like he does ahead of every show. “I always wear my father’s watch when I perform. It was his favorite one and he rarely took it off,” he says of the Baume et Mercier piece. “I bought it for him in 2007, the year I got married. It meant the world to him. He left it to me when he died. When I wear it now, I know I’m never alone. I miss him every day.”
After the 150-minute set, Manoukian hails the evening as “surreal.” It’s another career highlight for the 42-year old, who credits his father’s guidance for helping propel him to international fame. “My father was in finance but he loved the arts,” he shares. “When everyone was encouraging their kids to steer clear of music – they didn’t think it would make money – my father made me promise not to leave it. He told me that you could find a million lawyers or doctors but rarely would you come across real talent.”
Manoukian started playing the piano at age four and was composing his own arrangements by eight. He performed his first concert at 16. He also began writing his own songs then. Remembering his first concert, he says, “My father was a visionary. It was supposed to be inside the Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, but he convinced me to do it in the parking lot, which could accommodate more people. I was performing my own music; I didn’t even know if anyone would show up. We were expecting 400 people and more than 1 000 came.”
A blend of contemporary and classical piano scores, his energetic compositions reach fans ranging from ages eight to 80. Born in Beirut, he explains that his Lebanese and Armenian heritage flavors his music. “My Armenian side gives me the soul of a nomad, whereas Lebanon, where I live, is a big melting pot of cultures. Naturally, this influences my work. Beirut is wild.” En route to his meetings, he often weaves in and out of traffic through Downtown Beirut on his Vespa. The frenetic pace suits him. “I’m hyper. I like to keep myself busy,” he laughs. His career has been on a similar feverish ascent since he was wooed by Sony and EMI at the age of 23. Manoukian recalls that he chose the latter when the team promised to fly him to Paris to sign the contract. “I was a struggling musician, so I went for the trip,” he shrugs. “However, while I arrived in Paris, my bags didn’t. I had to rush to Galeries Lafayette to buy some Armani pants and a shirt for my big meeting. The record company took me to lunch at an amazing restaurant and I signed a multi-album contract.”
Their partnership gave EMI its first number-one album in the Middle East, when Harem went gold in 2002. Several popular and award-winning albums followed before he moved on to Sony in 2013. Such is his global fan base, Manoukian performs everywhere from New York and Toronto to Sri Lanka and Santiago.
In a notoriously fickle industry, Manoukian has been business savvy, investing in real estate and devoting his time to another passion, basketball, serving as president of The Homenetmen Basketball Club, the current Arab world champions. Music, however, remains his first love and his fusion of oriental melodies with contemporary arrangements has led to international collaborations with Wyclef Jean and 50 Cent. “I do a lot of house and electronic music so I’ve produced a lot for Wyclef. It was such an honor to work with him; the guy is a genius, a lyrical legend. I opened a concert for 50 Cent when he played Lebanon in 2006 and he’s a really cool guy, too.”
Manoukian still gets a buzz from performing. “The Sydney Opera House was magical, it was such an honor to play there, especially as I don’t come from a musical family. I’m not Paul McCartney’s son; I’ve had to build my fan base myself. That’s difficult for someone who’s not a singer, as it’s purely about the composed music.” He’s proud to say that Queen Rania of Jordan is a fan. “She’s an incredibly down-to-earth, humble, and beautifully spirited person. I’ve composed for her and often visit Jordan to play functions for her charities and the royal family.” He adds that the Kardashians are also enthusiasts; they were rumored to have made a surprise appearance at his LA show in 2016. “They are proud Armenians and I think they’ve done a great job for our 6 000-year-old culture. I think what they’ve achieved outweighs the so-called negative things they have done. They deserve to be called celebrities.”
Away from the limelight, Manoukian loves nothing more than spending time with his family. His three children – Gio, nine; Luca, seven; and two-year-old Cara – are his world. “My children take my breath away. I’ve never loved anyone or anything as much as I love them. I try to spend as much time as I can with them, as I don’t get to see them enough when I’m traveling.” Video calls with his wife, Sarah, helps to make long-distance travel more bearable. “I’m lucky as I have a wonderful family in Lebanon and London, including my mom, Asdghig (Stella in Armenian) and my cousins Bob and Rafi Manoukian, who always support my art and invite the best people to watch my shows,” he beams. The performer supports a number of philanthropic projects, such as Saint Jude’s Children’s Center of Lebanon. “I’m proud to be involved in a number of charities especially those that support children and the elderly. If you don’t give back, there’s no purpose in working,” he comments. He’s set his sights on cracking China next.
Like with everything he’s accomplished in life, Manoukian has a plan. “I’m a dreamer, but I studied law, so I’m a pragmatic dreamer,” he smiles. “Every dream I’ve had, I’ve backed up with planning and studying. The secret to my success is to be sensible, down-to-earth, and to have logical targets.”
Guy Manoukian will perform at Dubai Opera on November 17.