The whiney, pre-pubescent voices of teenage would-be musicians filled the room; it was our first school ‘Rock Concert’. Gormlessly egotistical as we were, we had been given a princely ten-minutes stage time and now, due to an unhappy mistake, we had to share them with a pair of ‘11th graders’. It was then that I first met Usman Riaz. At 16, he had just begun playing guitar, he had been playing the piano since he was six and also plays the mandolin, harmonica, banjo, sitar and harmonium. Shy and dangerously close to being bullied out of his musical debut by five 10th graders who, little did we know then, would consider themselves lucky if they had a tenth of his talent.

Four years later, soon after graduation, Riaz was signed by Electronic Music Industries [EMI] Pakistan. Earlier this week, Riaz released his debut film piece “Firefly”, which was written during his school days, and is one of the tracks on his album titled Flashes and Sparks. The young musician is very hopeful that his hard work will pay off. Speaking to The Express Tribune, he shares his musical journey thus far. “Flashes and Sparks is the beginning of a slow process that will, InshaAllah, lead to all my dreams coming true.”

Riaz cites his creative family as his greatest influence, particularly his grandmother — an eastern classical musician: “She was the one who first exposed me to the piano. I spent most of my childhood in her room, watching her write music or practicing meticulously.”

The guidance and encouragement that he has received made him even more conscious and critical of his work. The artiste has done all – composing, mixing, balancing and played all instruments himself except the drums on the track “Clouds Before the Storm”. “I look at my work in a very different way, I want it to be something I can look at five years down the line and not cringe. Hopefully, that will continue to appeal to me as I mature.”

The work of Nicolo Paganini and western classical music, in its intricacy, is his favourite. As far as instruments go, the guitar is liberating for him: “Apart from being expressive, the guitar was one thing the piano was not. Portable.”Inspired by musicians such as Michael Hedges and Kaki King, Riaz enjoys: “working on things more than the result.” Has he ever had stage fright? “I feel more comfortable performing on stage than I do offstage. Being on stage feels like flying to me.”

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring trait of Riaz’s work is its maturity, well beyond his years, reminiscent of Joe Satriani’s instrumentals, it evokes emotion. The honest, clean, sound and work ethics have already earned him a band of loyal listeners. Riaz has already collaborated with Ali Noor and other artists at Uth Records in the episode scheduled to air today.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2011.