A 21-year-old virtuoso at playing the percussive guitar, Usman Riaz shares his journey with Emaho. From learning the style through Youtube videos to playing live with one of his heroes, Preston Reed, at the TEDGlobal 2012, he has indeed come a long way.
Emaho : Being from a family that enjoys music in its true sense…how has it shaped your sense of music?
My family has always been supportive of my work; I come from a family greatly inclined towards the arts. My great grandfather was an eastern classical musician as well as a music scholar. My Grandmother was an eastern classical musician as well as a stage performer. Her brother Zia Mohyuddin is one of Pakistans last remaining orators. My mother and father both are stage performers, my father is a musician as well. My family is full of creative influences so music was a big part of growing up.
Although I am not inclined to eastern classical music as such, I was around it grown up. I am more inclined towards western classical music. At the age of 6 I took up classical piano and that shaped my musical taste, my teacher would make me listen to orchestra pieces, my father would make me listen to orchestra pieces. My main instruments are the piano and the guitar but I love writing for orchestra. So all the other instruments I play have contributed to my orchestral writing.
Image Courtesy : Bilal Khan
Emaho : How were you first introduced to the guitar? And, what influenced you into playing percussive guitar?
I actually would have never picked up the guitar if it wasn’t for my childhood friend. I was 16 and he wanted to perform and no one else agreed to play with him. That was the first time I picked up any other instrument other than the piano. I had never played the guitar. I learnt his song for him and we performed. He is probably the reason I am also such a perfectionist because his performance was SO terrible I couldn’t show my face to anyone afterwards. His singing was like a cat being strangled. I vowed to never let something like that happen again.
As I started playing the guitar I started getting more into it. At the age of 16, I started discovering all these new styles of playing the guitar on YouTube. People like Preston Reed and Kaki King used to play with such enthusiasm and fervour.
The videos made me want to learn that style as well. It combined everything I love about percussion with music. I was so used to playing piano on my own I thought that this style would also let me perform alone and play with a rhythm section without it actually being there. So that made it a lot of fun.
Emaho : You started playing piano at the age of six training in classical music, how do you think knowledge in musical theory helps with the freedom of genuine creation?
My uncle once told me when I was young that ‘you need to know all the rules before you attempt to break them’. So being classically trained allows me to be aware of what is possible musically and what can be done and thus allowing me to move beyond those norms and try to break those rules with my own compositions. Sometimes I fall on my face trying to break the rules but other times it can turn out to be quite nice. Piano has really helped since I was small because it has grounded me and created a foundation in terms the fundamentals of music, structure and writing music itself.
Banner, Circus In The Sky, 2012
Emaho : You were signed by EMI Pakistan, one of the best record labels around…what is it like for a solo instrumentalist like yourself to have earned an opportunity to play for such a prestigious record label?
I am very very grateful because I see so many musicians struggling everyday and here I was with complete musical freedom with no deadlines and the opportunity to do whatever I wanted. So I went crazy. I wrote the music that I wanted and made the films that I wanted. I was able to stay true to myself when it came to my work and I think it was made very apparent to onlookers and listeners that I was doing something that genuinely meant something to me. Maybe that’s why TED recognised my work. I always followed TED so it was an honour to be selected, to be a TED fellow, and go to the TED conferences and speak and perform on the TED mainstage. It led to so many new opportunities and creative avenues I am very grateful for that.
Emaho : You had the opportunity of sharing a stage with Preston Reed, admittedly one of the biggest influences in your music. What was it like sharing and creating music with one of your idols?
It was the most surreal experience in my life. Here I was sitting next to the man whose videos I watched to learn most of the techniques that I know. He has this thing that he does where he tilts his head to the side so that his long hair doesn’t get in the way of his playing. He flicks his hair over his right ear and then tilts his head back and stays in that position while playing. It was so cool to look over my shoulder on the TED MainStage and see him do that exact same move LIVE right before my eyes.
I only had 3 weeks to learn his piece, I was driven to get it down right. We had only one rehearsal the night before our performance at TED global. We just performed it 3 or 4 times together on stage and that was it. We knew it would be something special and I was very grateful I got to share that moment with him. He is absolutely amazing and a genius.
Video Coutesy : TEDGlobal, 2012
Emaho : TED is known to be one of the best platforms for young innovative minds; tell us how TED has helped you through your journey in music up till now?
Before TED I didn’t know that my work was appealing to anyone! There were a few people who would write to me etc etc but I had no idea my work was affecting people. To have TED reach out to me and say that they would like me to be part of their community is such an HONOUR.
To be around so many creative minds at TED Global was one of the best experiences of my life and I hope I can be part of that community forever. There was a sense of urgency at the conference to learn and meet new people and share ideas and be inspired. It brought about so many wonderful things, collaborations and career opportunities. It was wonderful.
Emaho : In 2011, you were entrusted with creating your version of ‘Saeen’ by Junoon, one of the most influential and successful musicians from the Pakistani music industry …what was it like experimenting with the song to recreate it anew, yet keeping its meaning alive? Was it as difficult as you’d expected?
It was really cool to be able to come up with my own version of ‘Saeen’. Salman Ahmad, the creative force behind Junoon, gave me complete creative freedom to do whatever I wanted. That was awesome. It was so cool that Junoon wanted ME to do something with one of their most famous pieces. I am very proud of what I was able to come up with. I wanted to turn it into a pseudo Middle Eastern orchestra piece and I think I was able to pull it off.
It wasn’t difficult– it was just getting the right amount of texture and adding melody to the pieces, while still doing justice to it and staying true to its essence and yet still make it my own.
I played around with its structure and changed the melody in sections that I saw fit. The fact that Salman Ahmad liked it was icing on the cake.
Emaho : Your first EP Flashes And Sparks, released in 2011, went viral gaining you a massive fan-base, but not without suffering its share of criticism. As a musician how do you deal with criticism? Does it affect your music?
My EP Flashes And Sparks contained only 3 tracks and was a teaser for Circus In The Sky (my actual album). There was criticism yes. People didn’t see the point of a release with just 3 tracks. Very few people understood that it was only a teaser for the actual album, so that was the frustrating part.
‘Fire Fly’ was one of the pieces on the EP Flashes and Sparks. That was what went viral. I am very grateful for that. I wrote ‘Fire Fly’ when I was 17 so to see something that I made at that age resonate with people was very gratifying.
‘FireFly’ laid the foundation for what I want to do with my music videos. I want to tell a story and want each of them to be a small story or short film.
I want my MUSIC to create worlds for people. It has the ability to take you somewhere else.
I did get criticism, but it’s the same criticism every new artist gets “oh you’re just a flash in the pan” etc etc. It never bothered me because I’m not doing my work to gain anyone’s approval.
I am doing it for myself. This is my contribution to art. It’s my voice and if some people would like to hear what I have to say I’m very grateful. If they aren’t it doesn’t bother me because there are so many great artists out there. I am just trying to be one of them.
Emaho : Tell us about your album Circus In The Sky. What inspired you to write it? What message did you want to convey with ‘Ruckus’, a short film that you wrote and directed?
Circus in the Sky is a conceptual album. It follows the journey of a small boy and it’s his coming of age story. It follows his experiences and emotions through life. It starts off very naive and childlike and then builds up and becomes more hectic and haphazard, leading to melancholic and ultimately acceptance and enlightenment. It’s a journey and I want people to experience those emotional changes.
Ruckus, the film, is something I had in mind whilst I was writing the musical piece. I wanted to bring my vision to life and I knew that I would have to direct it myself because there is only so much a third party will understand when you explain an idea that’s in your own head to them. I wanted to get my vision across the way I saw it in my head. I was very careful in selecting my team for Ruckus. I wanted people who believed in what I wanted to do and had the same enthusiasm I did for the project. I am very grateful it turned out the way I wanted.
I tried to convey a very deep message in Ruckus in a very playful manner. I wanted to show excessive corruption present in all levels of society. I wanted it to be fun to watch but those themes to also be present for people who wanted to look at it from a different perspective. I wanted it to have depth.
Emaho : It’s been nearly three years since you released your first record and created four albums along the way…how has the experience been for you so far and where do you see it going?
It’s only been 2 years since I released Flashes and Sparks, the EP, and only 9 months since I released my first and only album Circus in the Sky. The experience has been wonderful. I have learnt that if you stay true to yourself, no matter how difficult things get you will ultimately be rewarded. You have to be patient and have faith in yourself. You have to push all doubt aside and be driven to achieve your goals.
I cannot do anything unless I feel it in my heart. I don’t do anything unless I mean it. That is the only way I can make something with all my effort and be proud of it. I want my work to first please me before I even try to please others.
Hopefully I will be able to keep doing this for the rest of my life and I am very grateful to God for everything that has happened.
Art & Culture Interviewed by Aditya Varma
Feature Image Courtesy : James Duncan Davidson