It was in 2011 that the name ‘Usman Riaz’ first appeared on mainstream television. Embracing a refined and out-of-the-box playing style, he is an outstanding musician, filmmaker, actor and painter, at just 23 years of age. His music is unconventional, yet unparalleled, and he is the first of very few Pakistanis exploring newfangled techniques of the guitar and piano. Riaz was only 21 when he released the brilliant single “Firefly” from his debut album, Flashes and Sparks. Having started playing the piano at age 6, Riaz is now a multi-instrumentalist with a keen knowledge of the workings of guitar, harmonica and sitar. In the 2 years since the release of “Firefly”, Riaz has travelled all over the world, released another album, Circus in the Sky, become the youngest TED fellow, joined Berklee College of Music in the United States, and performed on stage with his childhood role models such as Preston Reed and Thomas Oliver.
Riaz hails from a family of artists. His music is a remarkable amalgamation of Eastern and Western influences, a feature that he attributes to his grandmother, who was a renowned Eastern musician. Riaz’s parents were also trained performers, and he is the grand nephew of the distinguished actor Zia Mohyeddin.
The musical prodigy was at the FTC auditorium in Karachi earlier this month, set to play a 90-minute collection of his songs and film segments. “Playing music is like storytelling for me; all I want to do is tell stories through my films, music and art”, Riaz stated at the inauguration of the show. Entitled Magic with Usman Riaz — An Evening of Mesmerizing Music, the concert was a joint venture with The Citizen’s Foundation (TCF), to serve as a tribute for the 141 students who lost their lives in the Peshawar attack last December. The event also marked a propitious attempt at raising funds for the TCF sponsored 141 Schools for Peace project, which seeks to build a school in the name of every child lost in the terrorist attack. In the face of the greatest tragedy faced by the country, Riaz decided to stretch the concert by another 60 minutes, against his usual performance time of 30 minutes.
Hundreds rushed to FTC to watch Riaz's performance
Upon entering the auditorium, one was greeted with a colorfully decorated stage carrying the characteristic Yamaha piano and a sandstone cutaway guitar. TCF volunteers ushered guests to their seats as the program drew to its start. Riaz inaugurated the session with a beautiful and delicate interpretation of the song that brought him fame, “Firefly”. Not surprisingly, this first performance swept the audience off their seats as they swayed to Riaz’s entrancing guitar melody. Featuring multiple layers of percussive-style interludes together with upbeat lead note lines, “Firefly” perfectly set the tone for an evening full of surprises. Riaz chose “Shimmer” as his next song, featuring an impressive baseline and rhythmic pattern supplemented with hand-driven percussions off the body of his guitar. Throughout his performance, Riaz’s love for harmonics was clearly evident, which were featured in the climax of most of his songs, setting off a continuous round of applause across the auditorium each time.
Riaz sways along the fretboard while playing Coke Studio's 'Bone Shaker'
Alongside his skills with the guitar, Riaz also displayed a tremendous aptitude for Mozart-style piano playing in tracks such as “The Waves”, “Descent to the Ocean Floor” and his most recent collaboration with Coke Studio, “Bone Shaker”. “I usually play the piano, but also mimic it through the use of the guitar – essentially playing the guitar like a piano”, Riaz responded to a question asked by a member of the audience. Supplemented with an emotion-ridden and progressive tune, “The Waves” addressed the theme of life in the ocean while “Descent to the Ocean Floor” gauged a similar becoming tale. These were better understood in the short movie clips Riaz would occasionally show the audience, usually following an energetic and uplifting performance. Among these clips were ingenuous productions such as “Ruckus” and “The Waves”, directed by Riaz himself. These short films dealt with interesting societal themes, bringing a whole new feel to the show. The concert concluded with the airing of Riaz’s pitch-perfect rendition of “Blue Moon Waltz” with the Boston Symphony at the Berklee College of Music.
In the midst of the terror that has surrounded the country in the past few months, musicians like Usman Riaz have dreamt of bringing about creative change amongst the masses. This concert was living evidence of the selfless ideology that runs rampant amongst people like Riaz, who seek to utilize their talent to inspire others and introduce them to the idea of creativity, society and peace. While the concert was a tribute to the befallen of Peshawar, it also served a much broader purpose: to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of Pakistani society and to inspire our youth to bring about positive social change.
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