Lebanese-Armenian musician, composer and pianist Guy Manoukian has been playing the piano since the age of four. Discovering his unique talent at such a young age, his parents saw a gift in the young musician and encouraged him to play for their friends and family.
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As he got older, Guy realised that this passion could become a career and he embarked on a musical journey that had never seemed possible for a young boy growing up in Lebanon. As a child, at the age of just seven years old Guy was composing his own music, and was invited to perform at The Lebanese Presidential Palace. He began playing at hotels and venues around the country. The musician realised this talent was something that could help him to achieve global stardom and in 1994 at the age of 18, he began performing publicly to large audiences.
As one of the region’s most successful artists, his career has taken him around the world where he has performed at some of the globe’s most prestigious stages and venues. He has broken records and won various awards. His unique talent allows him to put his own twist on traditional piano playing, bridging the gap between East and West, to create some of the most unique and memorable pieces of music ever heard in the industry.
Today, Guy is a father of three children, and while he continues to love music and his career, his motivation has changed as he strives to leave a legacy for his family to be proud of. Humble and grateful for his position, Guy loves nothing more than making his three children; Gio, Luca and Cara, happy and knowing that he has provided a life for them that growing up in a war-torn country, he could never dream of. This is the story of a man who never gave up.
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In 2021, after a break from performing due to the pandemic, Guy moved to the UAE to embark on a new journey and an exciting project that would see him open The Theater, a new nightlife and musical destination in Dubai. As the Partner and Artistic Director of The Theater, Guy is responsible for bringing together world-class musical acts, dancers and performers to put on an incredible show night after night, attracting guests from all around the world. The Theater has changed the face of nightlife in the UAE, offering visitors so much more than just a show, a dinner or a night out, it is an immersive and memorable occasion that invites guests into the creative mind of this talented artist as he plays out his vision on the stage. This May, The Theater will reopen after a huge renovation, with even more spectacular shows, fine dining and nights to remember.
A man of many talents, Guy is currently preparing to launch his next album and has just returned to the role of President of his beloved Homenetmen basketball team. He has most recently been revealed as a regional ambassador and friend of the brand of Zenith Watches, selected for his dedication to following his dreams and representing the brand’s “time to reach your star” motto. As the partnership is officially unveiled we sat down for an honest and open conversation with the artist to discuss his career, and the secrets to his success.
Let’s begin by talking about time. Time is a very valuable element in life, especially when it comes to someone like you who has many elements to juggle – what does time mean to you?
Time is my common denominator. A wristwatch for me is a very important item, it’s as important as my phone in my daily life. I am an extremely punctual person and I think that time is very important. I appreciate people who take time out from their busy schedules for someone or something. Because I run a lot of businesses on different continents I do a lot of different things during the day, working with many different time zones, so knowing what time it is in which time zone and which state of mind I need to be in at any given moment is crucial. For the past 40 years of my life, I’ve been addicted to time management and that’s why having a wristwatch to regulate my day is very important. I’m always looking at my watch to know what I should be doing at that particular moment and what others associated with my business and also those in my family are doing at any moment in time.
We are revealing you as the new “friend of the brand” of Zenith Watches – tell us how the collaboration with Zenith came to life and what are the common codes between you and this brand.
I think the most important thing that aligns me with Zenith is their tagline “Time to reach your star”. I’ve always said that if you take a look at my career, first of all, I came from a war-torn country, I became attached to the piano because it didn’t need electricity. Music was always my escape in my life and until today it is the key to everything I wanted, so I thank God I was born with this talent. I believe that everyone is born with a talent, but the lucky ones and the people who become famous for what they do, are the ones who find their talent. Some people will spend their whole lives searching for their talent when we say ‘follow your dreams’, this is what it means. So I am grateful that I found my talent early on when I was just four years old, and growing up in a country like Lebanon, I wasn’t even allowed to dream of what I’m doing today. But I always did. And I always imagined myself on the biggest stages and I kept thinking of this until it came true. So I think this aligns me with Zenith because Zenith itself is the perfect star and reaching for the stars is a motto I’ve lived by all my life. When I was approached by Zenith and started reading about the brand I saw that we are so alike and I’m very proud to be associated with a brand that has done so much even for other watchmakers. The complications, the sophistication of their movements, and the complexity of the brand, I think we share a lot and that’s why I feel this comfort and perfect fit with the brand. Our paths are parallel. Even though I have been in this business for a very long time, and playing the piano for over 43 years, I still feel that I’m at the beginning of my career. I hope I will always feel this excited and it’s the same with Zenith. Even though it’s a brand that goes back to 1865, it feels fresh and young and that’s how I want to be perceived.
What are you wearing on your wrist today?
Today I’m wearing this beautiful Chronomaster El Primero. I own a lot of watches but I’m not able to part with this watch, I’ve been wearing it nonstop. It’s something I can wear with a suit when I’m performing, but also for a casual occasion, so it’s an everyday, every-moment watch.
How would you describe your journey since you started playing the piano at the age of four until now?
If I wanted to name my journey I would call it “Motivation”. Each moment in my life and career has had its own motivation. Funny enough, when I was young, my first motivator was out of jealousy. I am the youngest of three boys and I have always looked up to my brothers and my late father who was the driving force in my career. My brothers Christian and David used to have piano lessons but I was only three years old so my hands were too small to play at that time. They used to say that I would get so jealous of them and I would try to compose music just to show my parents that I could do it too. So at that point, for me, it was a game. When I turned four my hands were big enough to start playing, so the teacher urged my parents to let me learn.
When you are a kid what do you want other than your parents to be proud of you? So as I got a little older this motivated me to play. I didn’t know anything about money or girls at this age, all I cared about was my parents being proud of me and happy. I remember my parents would have friends over and they would wake me up to come down and play for them and their friends. And they would beam with happiness and pride, and at that time, that was the best thing that you could give me.
Then when I turned twelve or thirteen years old, I started to want girls to like me and I realised that I didn’t need the newest trainers or jeans, all I needed to do was to play and I could bypass all of that with my music. I have a very good ear and anything I heard at that time I would be able to play. It’s funny because nowadays if there’s a song that you like you go on YouTube or iTunes and you can immediately listen to it, but in those days we would have to wait for hours on the radio for the song to play. So in that sense, I was a walking iTunes – if I heard the song once, I could play it fully with orchestration.
Growing up in Lebanon we listened to a lot of French music as well as the rock band Air Supply and British musician Chris De Burgh and I used to play any song that the ‘audience’ wanted to hear. And at that time that was my biggest motivator because I could please a room full of people at any given moment. I would always change the songs, and make people laugh – even when I had piano lessons the people that had attended the lessons before me would stay to listen to me play and the people after me would come early. I would always entertain them.
After this period I started needing money and wanting material things. I started wanting a car but I didn’t want to let my parents go through the trouble of buying me one and I wanted to travel. Because I am the youngest, I was always the one who received hand-me-downs from my big brothers and I’m still proud of that, but at some point, I wanted to start buying my own things. So I realised that I could take care of things by earning money playing the piano. So by the age of 16, I started to do this. At that time, when my friends would go out and party, I used to play the piano at hotel lobbies and I would make sixty dollars a week. Until now, this was the best sixty dollars I’ve ever made. I started to save money and travel and I even bought my first car with the money I made.
If you ask me what my motivation is today, it’s changed completely. Now we have three beautiful kids and what I’ve created and achieved so far is all about leaving a legacy and something for my kids to be proud of. Nothing matters if you don’t have a family to share that with and I’m blessed to have a beautiful family and a great wife that understands the nature of my demanding job. We are all sacrificing a lot by living apart – they live in Lebanon and I live in Dubai – I come and go as much as I can but even before coming to Dubai, I would travel for almost three weeks a month. So I think the sacrifices being done by everyone in this family and especially by my wife Sarah, are the secret to my success. But at the end of the day, success has no meaning if you don’t have anyone to share it with. My family is my life and even the partnership with Zenith, makes me even prouder because am making my family proud.
Do your kids play the piano like their father?
No, but they are talented in other areas. My daughter does play actually and she is very talented, I have never pushed them to play and I didn’t want them to, because my circumstances were very different, I played to survive and to afford to live, their situation is very different. I still play to make sure my kids have the best life, so for me it is still survival and that’s why I got good at it. Plus, even if they are better than me, they will always be compared to their father and that’s not fair to them.
What else would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
So much! You name it I’ve done it – I’ve performed on the biggest stages in the world, and I’ve played everywhere from Sydney to Chile but I still feel that my journey is growing. The more I do, the more I want. It’s not about money, it’s about the achievements and following my dream and proving that you don’t need to have a particular family name or be the son of someone to succeed, you just need to believe in yourself and never give up.
We know you are working on your new album – what can we expect from this?
I’ve been working on this album since 2019. I never had the time to finish it because I was always touring so actually during the Covid slow down, I was able to do this and it’s almost ready now. It’s called TAMADA which is something that means a lot to me. In Armenian culture Tamada means “the host” but it also has other meanings like being the big brother, the person you go to for advice, and having a tamada in your life is like having a father figure or a mentor, and ironically, even though we hate to admit that we need help, we always need to have this kind of person in our lives to guide us.
It will be a very beautiful album, it will be the best album I have done so far and I’m so excited. I am still deciding how to release the album because the business has changed so much. Today, record labels are not as essential to an artist’s journey as they were before and so I’m just trying to decide in which format and how to release the album. That’s why I’m taking my time. Even for me at this time in my career, it is a learning process to understand how the business has changed.
The Theater has been a great success in Dubai – tell us about the concept as well as the vision moving forward.
The Theater is one of the biggest achievements of my career. All the thanks go to my amazing partner Rabih Fakhreddine for his vision, and 7 Management for trusting me and convincing me to be part of this project. They came to me to present the idea and they only wanted to do it with me. I was convinced and I’m so proud of The Theater and all of the team, not only the artistic team but
everyone that’s involved. We have just done a full renovation and the new Theater is even more beautiful and even more majestic. For me to leave Lebanon and move here and run The Theater, you should know the importance it has to me. I have always wanted to have something like this but I never had the time to do it, and then when Covid came and I had over 90 shows cancelled, plus the tragic explosion in Beirut, I felt I needed a change and so this came at the right time and it was the right opportunity to remind me that my true vocation is arts. So I always give credit to the great team in all areas, and I am grateful for the opportunity.
Are there any plans to expand the concept further?
Yes definitely! The thing is that The Theater is not something you can just plug in anywhere. We are very careful that the level of output we provide is of its utmost best at all times. I believe the natural habitat of The Theater would be a city like London because it needs to be in a cosmopolitan touristic city. We have people calling from all over the world before even coming to Dubai, wanting to plan their visit before they arrive and it’s becoming part of their agenda when they visit. So to keep this standard it needs to be done in the right way and I should be present to ensure that. I can manage two countries, travelling every week and I think London would be a great step. Saudi Arabia is also on our map for the future.
“Reaching your star” is not only translated in your music and entrepreneurial journey but also in your commitment to sports and in specifically basketball – tell us more about that.
If you’ve read about me, you’ll realise that I’ve done more in sports than I have in music! I used to play basketball for a team in Lebanon called Homenetmen. This club is 105 years old and one of the oldest in Lebanon and it represents the Armenian diaspora. I grew up playing for this team, starting with the juniors, before playing for the first team. Then as I got more successful at playing the piano, I could not insure my hands anymore if I continued to play basketball, so I had to choose between the two and of course, the piano was what I continued with. A year after I left, the team got into a lot of trouble and went down to the second division. It was killing me because while I was never a great player, I knew how the team should be run to win. But at that point, I didn’t have the means to help them. In 2012, I took over the team. I remember we had a press conference and people came because they heard I was involved. This would never usually happen for a second-division team, but they wanted to know what I was doing. I had already changed the whole look of the team, and I wanted to show the beauty and institution of this club. I remember saying at the press conference, that this would be a new era for Homenetmen, and that in 2018 which would be our 100th anniversary, we would win the Championship. Everyone started laughing and told me this would never happen, but I told them to mark my words and that’s what happened. We won five championships in 2017 and 2018 and we did the triple which no one had done before. We won the Arab Cup, The Lebanese Cup and the Lebanese Championship.
In 2019 I stepped aside and it was a difficult time because of Covid. Then that year the team was in trouble again, they had lost 13 consecutive games and we were going back to the second division after ten years. They came to me and asked for my help and that’s what I did! I stepped back in and we won all of the games, not only did we stay in the first division, we went into the playoffs. It was a Cinderella story! And now we are preparing for the next season which starts in September. It’s funny because it was my son that convinced me to go back, as well as my assistant who has been with me for 20 years. It’s nerve-wracking but it’s always nice to be part of something bigger, and the fact that I’m making hundreds of thousands of people happy gives me so much satisfaction. We have fans all around the world and there is nothing better than making these people happy. I don’t know if I can win everything again next year because we are in a rebuilding phase, but wanting to win and knowing that we are giving it our best shot is the most important part.
It’s amazing to have these two very different passions…
I studied law, and people always ask me why? When I was 17 my parents wanted me to have a backup plan in case music didn’t work out, so I studied law and at the same time, I was playing basketball. People would ask what each of these elements had to do with the other and I would tell them that everything benefited the music. If you know me well, you will know that at times I am bohemian and artistic, but there is also a very pragmatic side to me. So if you ask me what’s the secret to my success? I will tell you that studying law was one of my secrets. I’ve always had practical targets, I’ve always believed in small wins to get to a bigger win, and I have always planned very well with a system. So from law, I learnt how to set practical targets and achieve them. And from basketball, I learnt how to work within a team and to trust someone within your team. And these two elements are key to my music career. My musicians have been with me for the past 24 years and I think that says a lot. All of these parts of my life have been complementary to my music and have helped me get to the position I am in today.
What is a personal motto that you live by?
It’s going to sound cliché but I think “time to reach your star” is going to be my motto for the coming few years! It’s a motto I have actually lived with throughout my life. I also like to say “The biggest risk in life is when you don’t risk at all.” I like calculated risks.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love to play backgammon. I’ve been playing since I was very young and have a lot of friends that I play with regularly. I also play a lot of music. Where I live I think I’m the only person that has a piano in the building and I play a lot. Even when I was young I used to play for six or seven hours a day.
How does it make you feel when you are playing the piano?
A piano is something that can suit every occasion. I play when I’m sad, I play when I’m happy, I play when I’m anxious, I play if I cannot sleep, and I play to entertain. I play for every occasion – sorrow, pain, happiness or love.
What is a message you would like to share with our readers?
I have a lot of concerts this year. The most important is at The Olympia in Paris this month which is a huge deal, it’s one of the most prestigious stages in the world. Also, something that I tell my team or my co-workers is: the day that you feel you are going to do a job, don’t come. Never give up on looking for what makes you happy because life is too short and you have to live it. You need to love yourself and loving yourself means respecting yourself and respecting yourself means to keep looking and never give up, because if you give up you have no self-esteem or respect for what you’re doing. And for people who have children, I would say that the moment you have kids, your life is not yours anymore, so you have to always think of what makes them proud of you and what makes them happy. And don’t forget to always reach for the stars!