Art TED Fellows

Guitar heroes: Q&A with Usman Riaz at TEDGlobal

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson. Via the TED Fellows blog:

Usman Riaz closed out the Wednesday sessions of TEDGlobal with an extraordinary performance on his percussive guitar, delighting the audience. Then he was joined onstage by his hero, Preston Reed, the inventor of the style, for a fast-moving and poignant duet, bringing down the house. Here’s what Usman had to say about the experience.

So how was it today being on the TED stage playing with your hero?

It was a very surreal moment for me because when I started guitar and throughout my guitar-playing career, if you can call it that, I watched Preston Reed’s videos –- because Kaki King was a big influence for me, and she always talks about him. She performed at TED as well. She’s the one who sat offstage and played the guitar at TED2009 I think or 2010.

She would always talk about him, and so I always watched his videos. And on stage, he was in the exact same pose as in the videos, with his hair hanging down from his right side, playing the guitar. It was funny to look over my shoulder and see him doing the same thing. I had a lot of fun.

Did you have interesting conversations?

He’s very introverted. And so he’s like me — that was nice. I don’t know how to describe it, but when we played, I felt that something clicked. It was there because he was laughing as well while we we playing during our first rehearsal. I think that went really well. And I’m just happy he didn’t tell me I was playing it badly. So I’m glad, because no one can play his piece like him. He was holding my hand while I was walking; I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like he was guiding me through the piece.

What did he say to you onstage that made you look at him in such a shocked way? Because the look on your face was priceless.

We weren’t expecting an encore at all. We weren’t expecting to perform and improvise onstage. We both thought that, since it’s TED, everything would be very structured and by-the-book, and nothing in between. So when we were told to improvise, we were completely caught off-guard. And we had practiced nothing, rehearsed nothing, so he just looked at me. He was even shaking his head to Chris, saying, “No, no, no, no. We don’t want to improvise.” But finally when we had no choice, he looked at me and said, “Just wing it.”

That’s what he said when he was whispering to you?

When he was whispering to me, he said, “I’m playing percussion. Just wing it.” So I looked at him like, “Oh, my God. Okay. Okay, fine.” And then I switched guitars because I didn’t want to do anything complicated over his playing, since I knew he would be doing a very complicated percussive pattern. So I just played a melody.

Why did you switch guitars?

The tunings were different, but I knew that I could have more freedom because “Ladies Night” is his tuning. I’m not comfortable with that tuning except when playing that song. So I used a guitar in my tuning. I figured since he’s playing something he’s comfortable with, I’d also play something I’m comfortable with. So it just clicked for a few moments, and it turned out okay.

Did he follow your melody as you followed his percussion?

No, I made my melody fit his percussion. It might have seemed like I had taken the lead with the melody, but it was him in the lead all the way. I was just playing the melody over what he was doing and adapting what I was doing to him.

You were very well-tuned.

There were parts where I didn’t know what to do, but then I reverted to something that fit his time signature. And then immediately when I found that, okay, I can play something over this, I immediately did. But I had fun.

Do you think you might work with him again?

I’d love to. We didn’t talk about it, but I had fun, so I hope he had fun as well. It was a dream come true for me — a very unexpected moment.

What do you think of your Fellows experience so far?

I’m having a lot of fun because TED is the only place that encourages me to think big. Every other place that I’ve gone — be it a music school or a record company — they always tell me I try to do too much and that I should boil my focus down to one particular thing. And I would always say that I don’t want to do that. I enjoy everything that I do. It’s not that I’m losing out on something. I try to give time to everything. But this is the only place that has encouraged that. So I’m kind of sad that it’s almost coming to an end now.

Usman Riaz plays for the late-night crowd at the Balmoral Hotel on Wednesday night. Video: Karen Eng