Guy Manoukian on the pandemic, the Beirut blast and moving to Dubai

The Lebanese-Armenian composer talks about his tumultuous year ahead of performances at Dubai Opera

Pianist and composer Guy Manoukian will be performing at the Dubai Opera with famed violinst Ara Malikian. Dubai Opera
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This year was meant to be one of the busiest of Guy Manoukian's music career.

The Lebanese-Armenian composer had more than 90 shows lined up in 2020. He was set to travel across the Middle East, Europe and the US to perform his signature fusion of regional melodies and modern arrangements. But as the pandemic took hold, his hectic touring schedule, like that of most musicians, was disrupted. Countries around the world started imposing coronavirus-related restrictions and suddenly, Manoukian found himself with a clear calendar glaring back at him.

But that didn't mean he was going to sit idle.

"I'm a positive person, I always try to see the bright side of things," Manoukian tells The National. "So when all my shows were cancelled, I realised I had time to finish my new album and could spend time with my family."

The album, Manoukian says, is almost ready. Though he isn't set on a title yet, he predicts it will be released early next year. However, those attending his concerts at Dubai Opera – where he will be performing with famed violinist Ara Malikian – won't have to wait long to hear what the pianist has been working on. Manoukian was initially scheduled to play a single show on Thursday, November 12, but as tickets quickly sold out, an extra performance was added for the next day.

"I'll be performing three tracks from the new album at the shows," he says. Though he has held a few small shows and online recitals since the start of the pandemic, this will mark his first concert since March. "I'll be opening with a new song called Fly. It has a sample in it that's been taken from Charlie Chaplin's speech in The Great Dictator."

Many people classify Manoukian's work as fusion music, partly because its wide range of influences make it difficult to compartmentalise in conventional categories. Manoukian, who has been playing the piano since he was 4, often draws from his Armenian and Lebanese roots, but he isn't afraid to look elsewhere for inspiration as well.

"If you're an Arab, you'll feel the Oriental influences, if you're Armenian, you'll hear those influences as well. I have a new track on the album called Adana, which is where my ancestors were originally from in historic Armenia. It is one of my favourite tracks that I've ever done," Manoukian says. He is also planning on releasing a pop track soon – separate from the album – which takes heavy inspiration from Nigerian music.

Besides the pandemic, Manoukian's year has been impacted by two other disruptive events: the Beirut port explosion that shook the Lebanese capital in August, and the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Lebanese-Armenian composer and pianist Guy Manoukian is set to perform at Dubai Opera this month. Courtesy Dubai Opera
Lebanese-Armenian composer and pianist Guy Manoukian is set to perform at Dubai Opera this month. Courtesy Dubai Opera

Immediately after the explosion in Beirut, Manoukian began organising initiatives and charity drives to help those living in affected areas. Through his NGO, Lebanon of Tomorrow, he distributed food and raised funds for medical and social support.

“It was our duty,” Manoukian says. “After the blast, I dedicated myself completely to helping those in need during that time. With Lebanon of Tomorrow, we were able to help thousands of people from Achrafieh as well as the other areas devastated by the blast. I’m very proud of the team.”

In September, Manoukian also produced the song Immortal for American-Haitian musician Wyclef Jean. The song was written in support of Beirut and paid homage to the city's beauty and resilient nature.

Manoukian says he is emotionally invested in the recent dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh, where a deal to end the conflict was announced this week after many days of heavy fighting.

"Our message is always a message of peace, a message of love and it's an anti-war message," he says.

As much as he's proud of his Lebanese nationality and origins, Manoukian says he is also proud of his Armenian roots. That pride is evident in "my music and everything I do", he adds.

I moved to Dubai because I believe in the UAE, I believe in this government and that Dubai will become a major global hub in the arts and culture in the coming years

The star has also experienced a positive change this year: he has made Dubai his permanent home. The celebrated composer came to the city in October and says his move symbolises “a fresh start".

"I moved to Dubai because I believe in the UAE, I believe in this government and that Dubai will become a major global hub for arts and culture in the coming years," Manoukian says. He is also planning on opening a new nightspot called Antika Theatre at Fairmont Dubai by New Year's Eve.

“There will be live music played there almost every day. I’ll even be performing there myself occasionally.”

For now, Manoukian is looking forward to returning to Dubai Opera, marking the third time he has performed at the venue since 2018. Though he has performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world, including Sydney Opera House, he says Dubai Opera has a special place in his heart.

“It’s because of the fan base here and the connection between us; I think that’s the secret of my success at Dubai Opera,” he says. “The Lebanese community and the Armenian community come to my shows to feel at home, they come to hear and get a feel of Lebanon. I understand and respect that, and do my best to give them that feeling.”

This weekend's shows also mark the first time that Manoukian will be performing with Malikian, he says.

"Ara has had an amazing career. I'm excited for both of us to be on stage. Both of us were born in Beirut, both of us made internationally. We've been trying to perform live together for years," Manoukian says. "There's also another reason I'm looking forward to the concert. My four-year-old daughter will be seeing me perform for the first time. I can't wait."