Those who have heard his debut single “Firefly” should know better than to dismiss him as a one-hit wonder. Twenty-one-year-old musician Usman Riaz is as comfortable with his musical techniques as a seasoned magician is with his tricks. This multi-talented prodigy, whose previously crazy hair has now been tamed to a smart cut, has managed to defy all limitations of age and culture for what he loves most — making music.
Riaz launched his album, Circus in the Sky, on Friday at an event held at the Marriott Hotel. As he strummed his guitar and sang in a mellow, pleasant voice, a young girl in the audience jumped from her chair and exclaimed, fan-girl style, “Usman Riaz is standing right in front of me — Oh. My. God!”
The face behind the voice
Riaz decided to keep the event intimate; instead of having a host, he talked into the mic for most of the evening and related stories about himself and his family, bringing to life the dimly lit Crystal Ballroom. A former student of Karachi Grammar School (KGS), he is now a third year student of graphic design at Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture (IVSAA). Riaz also shared the dynamics of his ancestral tree with the audience; his great grandfather and grandmother were deeply involved with eastern classical music, while his great uncle is none other than the renowned Broadway performer and literary critic, Zia Mohyeddin.
Easy on the ear
“It took me two years to record this album. It’s the continuation of last year’s launch Flashes and Sparks. Circus in the Sky is about growing up and facing challenges,” he told a captivated audience.
With his orchestral and solo pieces, Riaz’s latest release is not the average album one would expect a young artist to compile. From percussions, the violin and piano to the guitar, the album has a tasteful assortment of instruments.
Riaz said he started taking piano lessons at the tender age of six. But as a teenager, he decided to branch out and explore other instruments. “Before I knew it, I was playing the guitar, mandolin and harmonica.”
The young musician said he preferred technology over one-to-one coaching from music teachers and is proud that instead he “took the help of YouTube to decipher each note.
‘Ruckus’ — a short silent film
It is obvious that Riaz enjoys an experiment. Not only is the track “Ruckus” on his new album, it is also the background score of a short film of the same name which he has directed and composed the music for. “The moment he brought this idea to us, we said yes, not knowing that it would land us into 13 hours of continuous performance. We were asked to do it over and over again till we got the Cantt Station shot right,” says Meher Jaffri of Bodhicitta Works, a production house.
Ruckus (the film) is about a thief and his accomplice who steal an affluent lady’s purse at a railway station. The thief then throws the purse into a warehouse, from where a progression of mind-boggling sequences and outstanding performances emerges, coupled with Riaz’s ethereal music.
“The pieces just came together. I do work on the music but most of the time it just flows into place,” Riaz said.
Riaz performed four instrumental pieces with the help of percussionist Alfred D’Mello. The high voltage performance of “Clouds Before the Storm” and the yet to be released “Ripple” left the audience wanting more. But it was “Shimmer” that spoke volumes for Riaz’s strong guitar playing techniques, while “Waves” showed the precision with which he can play and manipulate the piano. It is no wonder that he manages this beautiful symphony with such little effort; he says he grew up listening to Mozart. This unique blend of musical masterpieces is available on emipakistan.com
With love from the family
As much as the audience enjoyed Riaz’s spell-binding performance on stage, his sister Mina Riaz candidly added, “He really irritates me at home with these performances. But when I see him perform at a gathering and witness people loving his work, I feel happy for him.”
At the end of the show, the small, lanky artist took a bow and humbly went off stage. His fans were left murmuring about his spectacular mind and the close attention he pays to rhythmic detail.
Ghazal singer Tina Sani, who was also present at the event, was equally appreciative, as she said, “His is a completely unrestrained mind. He is a gifted individual.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 18th, 2012.