By Sonya Rehman
21-year-old, Karachi-based musician, Usman Riaz, made a quiet entrance into the local, Pakistani music scene in 2011 by way of his debut single, ‘Fire Fly,’ which fast became a viral sensation following its release by EMI Pakistan, who signed on Riaz when he was just 18.
With the release of his first EP, ‘Flashes and Sparks,’ released last year and an orchestral album, ‘Circus in the Sky,’ launched in 2012, Riaz is being admired and lauded as a gifted young musician par excellence in the country. It’s pretty astounding, given his age, because Riaz’s music comes across as mature and far too profound for someone of just 21.
Having studied classical piano since he was 6, Riaz started playing the guitar at the age of 16. Given his family’s close involvement with the arts, it is little wonder then, Riaz’s deep passion for music and production. His great grandfather was an Eastern music scholar, in addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, while Riaz’s grandmother was an Eastern classical musician who played the harmonium and the sitar. Riaz’s parents, too, associated with local art and culture, were stage performers in Karachi.
“I was fascinated by the idea of doing something that has never been done before [in Pakistan]. I wanted to make something that allowed me to incorporate my classical piano training and other instruments with my guitar style and aesthetic sensibilities. I wanted to do it all on my own,” states Riaz, speaking about his work.
This year, in June, Riaz was selected along with 18 other individuals (from across the world) as a TED Global 2012 Fellow. Hosted in Edinburgh, Scotland, TED Global brings exceptionally talented individuals from around the world onto one platform to interact with each other, and to attend stimulating TED talks by an assortment of high achievers and trail blazers from different fields the world over.
Standing as the youngest Fellow to be selected for TED Global this year, perhaps the highlight of the event for Riaz was performing an instrumental duet with one of his “musical heroes,” Preston Reed – a famed American guitarist who introduced a unique method of playing the guitar – with both hands – a method that Riaz too uses when he performs.
“I’ve been watching his videos since I started playing guitar,” Riaz states, “To perform with him was more than a dream come true. We communicated via email [prior to the event]. We shared recordings of his piece; he would send me edited versions of it as well. We performed a piece called ‘Ladies Night.’ We only had one rehearsal prior to the main event but thankfully due to our preparations it went very well and we performed quite well on the stage I would say.”
Barring his lessons in music, in addition to his family’s influence, Riaz mentions that “the creative process has changed due to social media.” “Learning,” he says, “Has become so much easier. My great grandfather was an Eastern music scholar – it took him his entire life…he traveled the world to find people to teach him. For me, I just have to press a button to learn anything I want.”
As a young musician, Riaz states his education in music was primarily through the internet, where he would watch countless videos of his idols and then emulate their techniques – such as Reed’s technique for example. For aspiring young musicians in Pakistan, Riaz states that people shouldn’t be “scared” to avail technology to “make it happen.”
“Some musicians come from broken homes and are poorer,” he says, “Therefore they need to please record labels to eat and can’t be too experimental because they’re under too much pressure.” Yet, Riaz believes that his generation in Pakistan can make a difference. “Great new musicians like Natasha Humera Ejaz, Mole, Orange Noise, etc, are emerging. It’s happening.”
Currently gearing up to leave for the US in the fall of 2012, Riaz will one of 30 young musicians – as part of ‘OneBeat’ (an international music exchange programme) – from around the world to collaborate and perform music together for four weeks in America.
Looking forward to performing in India in December for a TEDx event, Riaz states; “I know that Indian culture is very keen about music and the arts in general, and I sincerely hope that they will appreciate what I do. I cannot wait to get started.”
While Riaz may have hit the jackpot after his TED Global fellowship selection this year, which he agrees, has “opened up many doors” for him, yet, Riaz’s advice for aspiring musicians – not just in Pakistan, but around the world – rings true.
With social media at its zenith, unknown musicians becoming world sensations via Youtube, and the ease with which correspondence/song sharing may take place – no matter the distance, musicians – in countries where social media remains half-heartedly untapped – really need to get with the programme. And fast.
While there are a handful of bands and artists creeping out of the local, Pakistani music woodwork who are producing music (uploaded on Youtube and other social networking sites), a greater push is needed to encourage offbeat, indie bands and instrumental Pakistani artists to grab social media by the jugular and put it to effective, proactive use.