Pakistani sensation Usman Riaz talks about how social media helped him evolve as a musician.
Karachi-based musician Usman Riaz (21) made a quiet entrance into the local Pakistani music scene in 2011 through his debut single ‘Fire Fly’, which fast became a viral sensation following its release by EMI Pakistan, who signed Riaz on when he was just 18.
With the release of his first EP, Flashes and Sparks, last year and an orchestral album, Circus in the Sky, launched in 2012, Riaz is being lauded as a gifted young musician in the country. It’s pretty astounding because Riaz’s music comes across as mature and far too profound for someone of just 21.
Music in his genes
Having studied classical piano since he was six, Riaz started playing the guitar at the age of 16. Given his family’s close involvement with the arts, it is little wonder that Riaz developed a 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 are also associated with local art and culture, being 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,” says Riaz.
This year, in June, Riaz was selected along with 18 other individuals (from across the world) as a TED Global 2012 Fellow. The highlight of the event for Riaz was performing an instrumental duet with one of his “musical heroes,” Preston Reed, the American guitarist. “I’ve been watching his videos since I started playing the guitar,” said Riaz. “We communicated via e-mail (before the event). We shared recordings of his piece; he would send me edited versions as well. We performed a piece called ‘Ladies Night.’ We had only one rehearsal before the main event but thankfully due to our preparations it went very well.”
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 travelled 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 says his education in music was primarily through the Internet, where he would watch countless videos of his idols and then emulate their techniques.
For aspiring young musicians in Pakistan, Riaz states that people shouldn’t be “scared” to use 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 can make a difference. “Great new musicians like Natasha Humera Ejaz, Mole, Orange Noise are emerging. It’s happening.”
Currently gearing up to leave for the U.S. 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.
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. I sincerely hope that they will appreciate what I do. I cannot wait to get started.”
While there are a handful of bands and artists creeping out of the local 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.