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Usman Riaz: Young music sensation

March 21, 2013

Usman Riaz.–Photo by Eefa Khalid

On a very random visit to my old university, I saw a kid performing on the stage, the way his fingers were moving on the piano and during the next performance, on the guitar, I was left completely awe-struck. My curiosity led me to find out more about him from a couple of students who then helped me get his contact details.

The very talented Usman Riaz, charming but a little shy, is a graduate student of Communication Design at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture. During our quick chats in the recent past, he has kept me posted on his upcoming album, his new videos, and international performances and how thankful he remains to his fans.

Within a few months of my first meeding with him, Riaz was on local television channels with his song Firefly” and travelling around the world for TED talks and international performances. With nomination in Lux Style Awards, a background score in an upcoming Pakistani film “Seedlings”, to the recent the Hum Awards as the best emerging music sensation category, where the management somehow missed the category altogether. This young music sensation is everywhere. 

Riaz is in Austin, Texas, these days to perform in South by Southwest (SXSW), a set of film, interactive and musical festivals and conferences that take place every spring in United States.

Before leaving for Austin, Riaz spoke to about his childhood memories and his passion for music:

Your family has obviously been a big influence in your decision to take up music as a profession, but was there ever a natural inclination towards it as well?

My family was always very supportive of my work. They never pushed me too hard and let me discover things on my own.  I always felt drawn to music. Ever since I was young. I didn't realise it at that time but it was a big part of me while growing up. My grandmother was an eastern classical musician like her father and I would always watch her practicing or playing. I really enjoyed it as far back as I can remember. My parents got me to take up piano lessons and that's when I fell in love with classical music and orchestra pieces. I never thought I'd be doing the things I'm doing now musically, but here I am. I'm just grateful to God I get to do something I love.

You are also a very talented artist; if not music would you have gone in that direction professionally? How similar are the two forms (music and art)? Can you picture yourself doing anything else besides music?

My aunt (mother’s sister) is an avid listener of classical music and a fine arts scholar. She and my mother always encouraged me to draw. I've been drawing since I have been playing music. Music and art have been a big part of my life. I can't imagine not doing one or the other. I would have loved to pursue art on a more professional level… I guess I got to when I made the painting for 'circus in the sky'.

What was the first tune(s) you learned?

I don't remember the very first thing I learnt on piano since I was so young and learnt so many pieces. But I remember when I first picked up the guitar at 16, I wanted to learn ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ by Led Zeppelin. And I did!

What are your fondest musical memories?

My fondest musical memories are my grandmother’s classical music evenings when I was four or five years old. She would have massive functions at home and her fellow musicians would share their own musical compositions with each other and an enthusiastic audience. I loved jumping through the piles of shoes to enter the crowded room to hear the musicians perform. It was so much fun watching the tabla players powering the drum skins and hearing the sitars being tuned and its harmoniums droning. My grandmother would pull out one of her leather books containing her musical notes and poetry and she would then perform. It was a very special time for me.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Do you think your music is geared more towards a global audience rather than a Pakistani one?

I used to think that all the time! I used to wonder what am I doing, whether I’ll actually have an audience or if I'm being very self indulgent with my work. I'm very grateful for all the wonderful things that are happening now. From TEDGlobal 2012 to OneBeat conferences to SXSW performances. It's amazing how the audiences in these gatherings respond to my work. They see how much I love doing what I do and appreciate the effort I put in. The people in Pakistan are also starting to notice my work, it’s a slow process but I'm very grateful. I think anyone who wants to enjoy my work can enjoy it, whether they are in Pakistan or anywhere else. I want it to resonate with anyone who listens to it.

(L-R) Usman Riaz and Preston Reed.

Tell us a little bit about your TED Global experience and when you performed with your musical inspiration, Preston Reed. How was the experience?

TED and everything to do with it has been a dream. I am very grateful to be a TED fellow. I was probably the most emotionally affected TED fellow of my year. I was also the youngest Ted fellow from the 18 people selected so it was very overwhelming.

I got to speak on the TED fellow’s stage which was amazing; there is no audience like a TED audience. The minute you get up there you feel such love, every single person in that room wants to hear what you have to say and they are all there for you. My TED talk was very well received. I spoke on accelerated learning through the media around us and gave the audience live demonstrations of all the different instruments I can play, the art I have done, and the film I directed as examples.

Getting to play a duet with Preston Reed made it even more magical. It was one if those moments where everything fell into place, everything clicked. God is very kind to me.

Right after TED Global, you had to fly to states for OneBeat Fellowship. How different was it to perform there?

OneBeat was another incredible experience. Thirty-two musicians were specifically selected from all over the world by the US State Department to be part of this unique project. To be selected as an OneBeat Fellow at the same time as I was selected to be a TED Fellow was a miracle. Like TED, I was also the youngest fellow in this program too and I loved that I could learn from all the amazing and experienced musicians who were part of it.

The program was a month long with two weeks spent in the Atlantic Centre for the Arts in Florida where we devised and wrote all our musical material through experimentation and inspiration. It was a lot of fun. The remaining two weeks were spent on the road. We went from New Smyrna Beach to New York in a gigantic Yellow Tour Bus stopping at about 20 venues before the final shows in Washington and New York. It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget.

Since the musicians were from all over the world some of them didn't speak English so we had to come up with creative ways to communicate. I think I was the first person to download a translation app for my phone to get through to some of the musicians in a quicker way. Music was the only language in common though.

So what made you stick to instrumentals only? Will we be hearing Usman Riaz’s voice anytime soon?

Actually ‘Circus in the Sky’ does have a few tracks where I have sung. To me the voice is just another texture that I can add to my music. I don't want it to be in the foreground or the background. I want it to be a part of the music.

‘Flashes and Sparks’ is a piece which has a choir singing about a thunder storm while ‘Descent to the Ocean Floor' has a haunting vocal melody towards the end of it. A lot of pieces have vocalisation. It’s just not in the standard pop song format.

Eefa Khalid is a producer at