Art & Culture
Get it tuned, à la Libanaise, with Guy Manoukian
August 19, 2003
Guy Manoukian is sitting in the cafeteria of a sound studio in Awkar sipping a cup of tea and glancing frequently at the TV screen where MTV is constantly running. On the terrace that overlooks a beautiful valley, palm trees flutter in the wind, and wooden chairs seem ready for a break in the gentle sunshine after long hours spent locked in the studio.
Suddenly, Manoukian rises and heads back to the studio where a sound engineer is about to match the electronic lead violins with the real violins that were recorded at an earlier stage. “I love violins,” the young composer said, “and I love to write music for violins.” He stands in front of the sound mixer, performing on an imaginary violin, the melodies hang in the air. The sound engineer plays the same bit of melody over and over again, clicking on the sound waves registered on the computer screen – it’s part of a melody that Guy Manoukian composed himself. “We are a little tight on time today because we have to finish recording. Universal in Paris wants to finalize the production of my new CD and they need our final arrangements,” he explained, excusing himself for the rush.
The Armenian-Lebanese originally studied classical piano, music theory and composition at Kaslik University and recalled that he started playing piano at the age of four. “Music is all that I ever wanted to do in life,” he admitted.
Manoukian is one of a lucky few who has managed to realize the dream of a musical career, and he has done it at a very young age. At just 26, Manoukian is so successful that he can make a good living out of what started as a hobby and has become his true passion.
Classical music has provided a good base for what he’s doing now – composing and arranging in diverse musical styles from different eras and regions of the Middle East. “I’m Armenian, so there’s a clear Armenian influence in my music,” he explained. “I’m Lebanese and listen to Arabic music, and I get inspirations from there, too. I studied classical music and this leaves a trace in my compositions. And I’m young and go clubbing – and my music is strongly influenced by these new trends.”
There is no specific name for Manoukian’s musical style – it’s house music with Armenian, Turkish, Greek, Assyrian, Kurdish and Arabic influences. “This region is a melting pot – and my music is the expression of this melting pot. My tunes are clearly rooted in the Levant,” he said. “I wanted to create a new trend and I came out with something that for me is pure Lebanese music.”
Apart from writing his own compositions, Manoukian also remixes traditional Arab and Armenian songs, French ballads and British pop hits, giving them that distinctive Manoukian touch.
The sound engineer switches to the last song of Manoukian’s new CD, Amour. “Oh, I love this song!” the musician exclaimed. “It’s so romantic.” A love song, of course. A French love song, right. He hasn’t forgotten the violins – how could he! But it’s a romantic, funky Lebanese love song. Purely Lebanese. Manoukian has mixed the voice of the male French lead singer with a female opera singer, adding the obligatory violins, a funky rhythm and a jazzy saxophone, as well as the occasional melancholic tones of the Lebanese flute.
“All the musicians I work with are hand-picked,” Manoukian said. “They’re Lebanese, Greek and Albanian. It’s not only me who makes the music, it’s all of us!”
Manoukian’s new album is more mature than the previous one. “This album is more melodic and a little less Arabic,” he said. It is world music at its best that can be played in clubs and aired on radio stations in Paris, Amsterdam, Singapore, Beirut and beyond. To the Middle Eastern influences, Manoukian has added a little of Latin, Indian, pop and jazz. And progressive house, of course.
“I added more pop to my music, because I want to make sure all young people can enjoy my new album, not just Arabs. And I know it will sell,” the young composer said confidently. He’s clearly embraced the Indian wave that’s so hip right now in the clubs and on the airwaves of London. “That’s the new trend – and I added some Arabic influences to it,” Manoukian explained. By opening up to an ever-expanding range of influences, Manoukian has made his music universal.
If he had to choose between having his music played only in clubs or day and night on the radio, Manoukian’s choice is the latter – radio reaches the public everywhere. And he thinks his compositions are so varied they can suit any mood. The new album, he said, had been produced to international standards, to meet the requirements of the commercial music industry. “There are two long, progressive house tracks that run for eight minutes. The other songs are about four minutes long – very radio-friendly.”
The young professional signed a contract with EMI Music Arabia quite a while ago. Together with his manager, Roger Gaspar, and two other people who work with Gaspar he has also created an independent sub-label to produce music that can be played in the clubs of the Arab world.
Part of the secret of Manoukian’s success is that he has surrounded himself with the right people at the right time. Take for example Gaspar, who is also the owner of Radio One. He has clearly been instrumental in pushing Manoukian’s career forward. “Roger has helped me more than he has helped other musicians, and that’s why some people envy me,” he said. Manoukian has also received good advice on the newest trends and what sells – an area in which he has a finely tuned radar of his own.
Before going solo, Manoukian was the “G” in the R.E.G. project. His composition, Free at Last, based on an Armenian song, was chosen as first track on the album. The CD made gold within two months of its release in the Gulf, and stayed in Virgin’s Top Ten list for more than a year. The album was then distributed in Asia, Europe and the States. “The R.E.G. project did very well – it is pure oriental house. It was a good experience, but we had many differences within the group,” Manoukian said.
The other two musicians of R.E.G. project, Ralph Khoury and Elie Barbar, are more DJs who like to arrange the rhythms being played in clubs, whereas Manoukian was more focused on creating melodies. After the release of the album, Manoukian moved ahead alone and launched on his solo Harem Music Tour to the Gulf region and the United States.
After the success of the R.E.G. project, Manoukian’s star continued to rise. He composed the lead song for a Turkish film, was asked to participate in the new Buddha Bar CD, and Queen Rania of Jordan also asked him to write a song that could be used to promote her country – a great honor for the young artist.
The latest CD reflects all these developments. The overall style of the new album is very much Buddha Bar-like. The first track is El Urdun, which he wrote for Queen Rania. Manoukian actually went to Jordan’s deserts to shoot some scenes for his new video clip for El Urdun, while other scenes were shot in the Sursock Villa in Beirut. El Urdun is aired on CNN and BBC – and promotes Jordan, just as Queen Rania had envisioned.
Manoukian also writes advertising jingles, a sideline that has earned him some criticism from his industry peers. “Many of my fellow composers are not pleased with my competitive pricing, which is attracting many clients,” he said. “But I think that in this country, there is a niche for everybody.” At the end of the day, Manoukian is just getting on with business – and he’s doing it very well and with a lot of self-confidence, but he is constantly conscious of the fact that with increasing fame, comes an increasing number of rivals. “Lebanon is a small country, so you would expect some gossip and envy,” he said.
With increasing fame also comes increasing wealth. “The money that comes in is nice. But the most important thing for me is that I can do what I love – making music. I don’t demand anything else out of life. It’s great when you can make a living from what you love to do.”
Being popular and having people around you who enjoy your music certainly gives a great boost to one’s self-confidence. “I love performing more than anything else,” Manoukian continued. “It’s great to see people cheering, dancing to my music, and demanding encores after the show is over.” He recalled a recent show where he and his band had played for more than two hours, to a crowd that was in such a great party mood they didn’t want Manoukian to leave the stage.
Live performances are also Manoukian’s major sources of income – he plays for high-ranking politicians and ambassadors’ wives in first-class hotels as often as he does for disadvantaged children in social centers. “When I perform, my style is very different from my albums – I have a heavier emphasis on salsa and other Latin rhythms that make your body move.”
Despite the fame, the money and the popularity, Manoukian remains astonishingly down to earth. He dresses just like most other young men his age – jeans, black tennis shoes and a sweater. He has a lot of self-confidence, that’s true, but no arrogance whatsoever. He’s talkative and extremely enthusiastic about what he does. It’s probably his solid relationships with family, friends and his girlfriend that help him keep his feet on the ground. “Women are my inspiration. And life as it is – with all its love, hatred and jealousy – leaves traces in my compositions.”
But there’s no more time for intimate talk – Manoukian has to get back to business. He rushes off to pack his bag – he has to head to Amsterdam where he’ll give his first interview for Dutch TV. Next on the agenda is a European tour. Before leaving the studio, he gives some last advice to the sound engineer, who is working on the final adaptations for Amour. Fade out.