Violinist Emmanuel Houndo, left, and Central Music Department Chairman Benjamin Blazer
By Yvonne Dennis
Emmanuel Houndo has had a pretty outstanding 2014-2015 season for a professional violinist–except he’s only 17 years old and doesn’t even have his high school diploma yet.
When he began his junior year at Central in the fall, Manny, as he is known to family and friends, was coming off substantial YouTube fame and accolades for his high-quality, video-recorded violin covers of famous popular songs, most notably “Drunk In Love” by Beyonce and Jay-Z . The January 2014 “Drunk in Love” recording (Beyonce called it “Amazing!”) garnered more than 99,000 “likes” and more than 5,500 “shares” when Beyonce put it on her Facebook Page. In all the 30 videos Manny (275) has produced for his YouTube page have received more than 1 million views and gotten him news coverage by the “Today” show, Time.com and more.
We spoke to this future Central High alumni star about his live performances during his junior year and what he would like for the future.
What were some of the best moments of your junior year?
I think the first one was the radio interview with 96.5 in late November. (Manny performed many of his violin covers live on 96.5 FM’s morning show. )
The same day I got an email from the City Council. They decided to have me perform for the tree lighting event at City Hall. (Dec. 3). My performance was a solo performance. I was supposed to perform three songs but it ended up being two because of the protests. (Marchers were protesting legal developments in the death of African-American teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., over the summer).
Tell us about the March performance at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
That was part of Temple University’s Community Music Scholars Program. They wanted us to go to the state capital to perform as a form of protest to get the governor and the lawmakers to pay attention to the music program and hopefully not cut it. About 20 students went, four from Central and Mr. (Benjamin) Blazer. We performed at the atrium and there were senators walking back and forth; we basically had a moving audience and we had posters to display our message.
Then there was your solo performance at the Kimmel Center April 25 at the Mashed Media Awards, which honors media arts work by young people in six categories.
Before I performed at the Kimmel Center I didn’t know entirely what this event was about. Little did I know that the stuff that was getting presented was going to be very informative art—people making documentaries about school district budget cuts. And sitting there in that chair that evening I was very moved….I was actually going to open the show but they put me closer to the end of the show because I had been there but I went home before it started and I was late. I watched the educational documentary that won and I was thinking, “woh.” The things they are talking about in the video right now are very true. I’ve been in that situation where cuts do affect the kids. So as soon as they got done with the documentary I was going on right away. In my mind at the moment I said if I am going to say anything tonight I had to address that video…I just spoke about not letting the decisions bog you down.
What was your favorite thing you did this year?
I did this performance at St. Christopher’s Hospital. It was around Christmas time and it was for the diabetic kids. I found that an honor, period, to get hired by the hospital. It was a lot more interactive (than other performances). I asked them what they wanted to hear. And I played it. The good thing is I have the ability to play by ear so I was able to go off the cuff and do that. As I was leaving (the p.r. woman) gave me this this card. I’m in the car and I open it. It was a gift card and a thank-you letter. Apparently when I was performing they passed around the card to get all the kids and the staff to sign. Just getting that was enough compensation for what I did that evening. I was really happy.
How would you say your junior year went overall?—
In general I would say that it was eye opening–about being at peace. I know I still have a lot more to learn about that. But being at peace as in not always worrying about trying to impress people. Initially after the Beyonce thing I was thinking I have to do THIS to get bigger but the thing this year was first accepting me for me so that no matter what happens even if someone is going to judge me based on my accomplishments I still say, “Hey: I love myself. I love what I do. Period.”
Of course everyone would expect you get a number of new friends. My best friend Andre reminds me–always question the fact that if it wasn’t for the violin would they be your friend still? If it wasn’t for this clothing brand that sponsored you would thy still be your friend?”
I also learned that being purely good at your talent is a lot more important than commercial success. No one can take away talent from you but people can take away commercial success from you. I definitely decided that its important to work on my pure talent and that’s something that classical music has really enforced in me.
You mentioned that you had sponsors.
I was once sponsored by Reebok. It was this guy named Dan ‘Dilemma’ Thomas. Yo, shoutout to that guy. I got this email from him. He said, “I heard about your Beyonce video.” He was an ambassador for the company and his job was to go around the community and give out sneakers to kids who were making a change or doing something notable. So at first I read the email. I said this sounds kinds of sketchy. I didn’t reply. And I met this lady named Zoeh Hillengas (266, former All-City Orchestra flutist). She had me go to Temple to perform and she said, “Oh, did you get an email from Dan Dilemma,” that he wants to sponsor me with these sneakers and I said “Oh, I might have.” I got an email again. The second time I replied and he said that he wanted to give me these sneakers. So he came into Central and gave me one pair of sneakers. After that a couple weeks later he contacted me and said a friend of his had a place called The Compound in New York . He would love you to come in and record “Happy.” Hopefully he gets you recognized by Pharell Williams. …The day I got there they gave me a whole bunch of stuff–hoodies, an authentic Phillies jersey.
The project was to play “Happy,” get it to Pharell Williams and have him share it. We thought he might share it off his page but his company shared it off its page. Its no biggie.