Rising music star Riaz Ahmad: “Paying homage to my roots is vital”

The debut EP by Oxford-based Riaz Ahmad (pictured) features themes on love, family and migration
The debut EP by Oxford-based Riaz Ahmad (pictured) features themes on love, family and migration

by LAUREN CODLING

BRITISH-ASIAN music star Riaz Ahmad has opened up about the inspirations behind his debut solo record as it was released in the UK last week.

All At Sea, which Ahmad said took him around two years to write and record, touches on a number of themes including migration, love and family. Speaking to Eastern Eye on Monday (24), Ahmad admitted that paying tribute to his heritage within his music was important to him.

The song Pray to God from the EP, for instance, revolves around the older generation of Asian women who came to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s and 70s. Most women at that time had arranged marriages and were devoted to raising a family, he said.

The track was recently played on the BBC Asian Network and Ahmad was interviewed by DJ Bobby Friction about the folk song. The musician admitted it was a poignant experience to discuss the song on a radio station tailored to the British Asian community.

“It was emotional (talking on BBC Asian Network), knowing that experience is something many people in our community relate to, and even today are living on a daily basis, but which we don’t hear about in pop music,” he explained. “I wanted to tell the story of these women who have raised us and to whom we owe so much.”

Riaz is also a founding member of The Oxford Beatles, a Beatles cover band

Although a lot of the musical influence on the EP derived from western folk music, traditional Indian instruments, such as the tabla and sitar, also feature on some tracks. The opportunity to incorporate a combination of styles gave Ahmad the chance to pay tribute to his mixed heritage, he said.

“I initially wrote Pray to God with just my acoustic guitar and voice,” he recalled. “But I also heard another sound world (arrangement of sounds that create the instrumental portion of a song) for this track, which I thought would fit and also reflect my mixed heritage, being both British and Asian.”

As well as his solo work, Ahmad is a founding member of The Oxford Beatles, a Beatles cover band. Having performed together since 2014, the group has played numerous events across the country including weddings and festivals. For Ahmad, who grew up in northeast England, the cover band was a “great way to get experience and get noticed”, he admitted.

“We’ve done very elaborate shows with an orchestra, playing the classic late Beatles albums,” he revealed. “The experience is very special, because the music means a lot to people, especially to the generation who grew up with that music and so you feel a responsibility to do it justice.”

However, as much as Ahmad enjoys his life as a musician, it does not come without challenges, he said.

As the use of streaming services has boomed, listeners have much more choice when it comes to accessing music, and a major issue is ensuring that his music was heard, Ahmad explained. “To get people’s attention and connect with those people who might enjoy your music is tough,” he admitted.

The songwriter said he was also aware that not many prominent British-Asian musicians were popular in the mainstream music industry. Although he was impressed by some of his south Asian peers who play music of their own heritage, it was still uncommon to see any British Asians on the ‘pop music’ scene. “Especially for women in our community,” he added.

Growing up, Ahmad said he looked up to a number of vocalists from different genres, and admitted a particular fondness for folk singer Jeff Buckley and hip-hop star Lauryn Hill. Today, he described his listening tastes as “very eclectic” as he sought inspiration wherever he could find it.

His first release has seen him collaborate with a number of others who have helped him on the road to the release of the EP, which he is particularly grateful for.

“It’s my first solo release and that is quite scary, because everything was on my shoulders,” he admitted. “But I was very lucky to collaborate with very talented people who helped me realise my ideas and I’m really proud of the final product.”

Riaz Ahmad’s EP All At Sea is available now. Visit www.riazahmadmusic.com/ for more information.