Azeem Ward – the man behind the meme
By Liam Kelly
It is the end of Freshers’ Week, and there is a real buzz and atmosphere of expectation around the Students’ Union building as a large crowd waits with bated breath.
Surprisingly, this is not the night of Pangaea, but the day before. Even more surprisingly, this sense of expectation surrounds a flautist about to play a gig in Club Academy.
However, this isn’t just any flautist. The flautist in question may well be the most famous in the world right now.
His name is Azeem Ward, a recent music graduate from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), who has been thrust onto the world stage after thousands of people from the United Kingdom RSVP’d to an event he created on Facebook to promote his final-year recital.
Ward set up the event in order to invite about 600 friends and family, for an event scheduled to take place in the Karl Geiringer concert hall, which has a capacity of just 100.
“The year is coming to an end soon and I will be performing my final senior recital! Please come out and show some support if you can!” he wrote. “You will hear some beatboxing, jazz and may even see some dancing! Plus there will be some refreshments!”
The recital promised to include works such as Devienne Concerto No. 7, Gaubert Sonata No. 3, and Roitstein’s Flautas, as well as some original compositions.
He left the event page public, so that anyone could confirm their attendance online. His page initially got 70 RSVPs from those he had personally invited. So far, so good—the concert hall would be mostly full.
Little did Ward know that his unique enthusiasm, as well as a now-classic photo of himself, flute nonchalantly slung over his shoulder, was hugely appealing to those of us on this side of the Atlantic.
Within the space of five days more than 88,000 people—most of whom were from the UK—clicked attending. The sensation led to him being featured in The Independent, Buzzfeed, and even earned him a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live on US television.
However, the Azeem Ward juggernaut did not stop there, and his 15 minutes of fame were not over yet. Following a successful petition on Change.org, a live stream was set up, where over 55,000 people logged on to watch the recital.
Over 400 people had to be turned away from the 100-capacity venue in California. However, a Durham University student who had flown over 5,000 miles to watch the peformance, was personally saved a seat by Ward.
Ward and his friend and partner Timmy, who is also known as DJ Underbelly, began their tour of the UK at the beginning of September. They are bringing never-before-seen blend of flute and live mixing to the stages of many UK Students’ Unions and campus bars.
On Thursday the 24th of September, Underbelly and Azeem played Squirrels Bar in Owens Park campus. The next day, they came to Club Academy for a gig, from which all the proceeds went to Manchester RAG. Their support artists were the DJs from Fuse FM.
I got the chance to have a brief meal with the duo before their performance, and had a chance for a quick interview before they went on stage.
Obviously, I had to ask Ward whether the original flute recital went well.
“I think so.” Ward replies, as if unsure: “I mean, I passed.”
Indeed, the recital was such a resounding success that Ward was able to crowdfund a ticket for himself and Timmy to embark upon their five-week tour of UK universities. Before Manchester, he had already played to capacity crowds at St. Andrew’s and Nottingham; and is going to Liverpool, Leeds, and elsewhere later in the tour.
Thinking ourselves to have been the first to think up such an innovative and hilarious idea, the organisers of the gig booked a table at Nando’s for Ward, Timmy, and four lucky competition winners, to really reinforce the cultish weirdness of the event. In fact, Azeem had already been ‘treated’ to seven Nando’s meals in the few weeks he’d been in the country.
In true Mancunion fashion, Nando’s had in fact lost our reservation, and we rushed to a nearby Pizza Express. Azeem was not downbeat though, and actually appeared to relish the change of surroundings. Instead of his eighth Nando’s, this would be his first Pizza Express.
“It was good!” he said of Pizza Express, “They had wine there and I ate my pizza and folded it in half—it was really good.”
Alarmingly pressed for time before he was meant to make it on stage, Ward’s exposure to Manchester continued by ushering him onto that Mancunian idol, a Magic Bus, before almost losing our famous guests upstairs. It seemed this may have been the first occasion that Ward had ever been on the top deck of a bus: “When we were on the second level it was quite… magical.”
As our interview finally got underway in the Union building, after all the excitement of dinner and a bus journey—and just minutes before he was due on stage—it seemed only natural to start our interview by asking how Ward felt to potentially be the most famous flautist in the world right now.
“I’m not sure if I’m the most famous, but I guess it’s good,” he replied, bashfully. “How about this—I don’t feel like I’m the most famous flautist in the world.”
Ward comes across as an extremely humble person, one who had absolutely no intention of becoming an internet sensation: “I don’t know many people that do set out to become an Internet sensation—I think it can only be accidental. I just want to be a musician.”
His humility appears not to be the quality his legions of fans appear to value the most. In a poll conducted on the Facebook recital page asking what Ward’s best aspect was, over 1,400 chose to say that he is “a beacon of light in a world otherwise fraught with darkness and despair”.
Aside from being a beacon in the darkness for thousands of Britons, does Ward know why the UK fell in love with him in the way they did?
“Because they’re a great people! But, for real, I think it was just an inside joke from the start, the whole meme and everything just started in the UK.”
I suggest that, as the duo’s setlist contains Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’—a highly popular meme in and of itself, and a song that was requested thousands of times on the initial Facebook event page—is an allusion to Ward’s status as a meme, Timmy confirms that it is “an inside joke between us and the audience, it’s us letting the audience know that we get it, man.”
Refreshingly, the pair remain grounded, and they appear to be under no illusion that their stratospheric ascent to fame in the UK is at least partly something of a joke.
Despite this easy-going nature, they are serious musicians, and they plan to use the immense platform given to them by legions of fans on the internet to forge their way in the hyper-competitive music business.
Ward continues: “Yeah, we’re trying to develop something out of it. What we’re doing is quite niche though, I don’t see many people doing what we’re doing. If you go online you’re not going to find much when you search for flute and DJ.”
Timmy went on, “When groups combine electronic music with live instrumentation there’s really interesting results.”
The most similar thing to what the pair are doing is a group called New World Sound, who successfully collaborated with grime artist Lethal Bizzle last year. Their track, “Flutes”, charted at number 67 in the UK, demonstrating there is certainly the potential for woodwind dance music here.
Coming on the back of his triumphant free show at Squirrels Bar in Fallowfield the previous evening—where capacity had to be limited to 500 due to the sheer demand for places—tonight’s gig is also a free event, but with donations being taken to raise funds for local homeless shelters.
Ward said he had never seen anything like the scenes in Squirrels, with some members of the audience even crowd surfing.
The gig at Club Academy cemented Ward’s reputation as the genre-bending cultural behemoth his fans know him to be. His combination of flute classics with Underbelly’s electronic beats—such as a house version of Bolero—as well as covering everyone’s favourite, ‘Sandstorm’, went down an absolute treat with those in attendance, as well as those watching in the Union Bar and online, thanks to Fuse TV’s live stream.
The crowd treated him with more enthusiasm than if they were seeing a world-renowned artist such as Lionel Ritchie or Metallica, continuing to chant his name between every song of his 45-minute set.
After the runaway success of his UK tour, is a tour back home in the offing for Ward? “We would love to do that, but we don’t have the big fan base like we do here. Like, if we went to Texas it would be like: ‘who the fuck is Azeem?’”
Indeed, how does he even explain this bizarre sensation to those who are close to him at home? “They’re kinda confused by it—they always ask if I’m famous now—and I’m like, ‘kind of.’ People definitely don’t know about it as much as they do here, it’s much different with you guys for some reason, and I don’t know what reason it is.”
Does Ward know who the initial figure was that led to his event blowing up? And, if he does know who it was, would he shake their hand or slap them in the face?
“I don’t know exactly who it was, I just remember the first guy sharing it, and his name was Damon Cole. But yeah, I’d give him a nice hug.”
And, finally, what does the future hold for Ward? “The future… I want to do more recording in the future, more gigs like this, teaching, composing, producing. Hopefully we’ll see an album soon.”
It appears that there is no shortage of fans in the UK ready to gratefully receive anything Azeem releases.
“They were born ready.”