Back in May, University of California student Azeem Ward created a Facebook event for his senior flute recital intended for his close friends and family.
Instead, he unknowingly created an Internet sensation.
After the event went viral in the UK, over 50,000 people live-streamed the recital, which featured a mix of classical pieces and flute beatboxing. Since then, there have been Facebook memes and YouTube remixes galore but, rather than resting on his laurels, Azeem has decided to bring his unique blend of contemporary flute playing to clubs around the UK.
I caught up with Azeem on the phone a few days after meeting him at a gig in Cambridge. Online hype aside, I was impressed by his skill and musicality and wanted to find out more. Determined not to mention the phrase ‘cheeky Nandos’ to him even once, I tried to focus instead on the flautist’s musical influences and inspiration, but escaping the internet image and opening up about the music proved a little more difficult than expected…
What’s your impression been of the UK so far?
It’s a very cheeky place, you know?
What’s cheeky about it?
Well, the Nandos of course.
But in all seriousness, we’ve had a great time and met a lot of great people. Everyone’s been very nice and we’re very appreciative of that. And it’s not hard to get around. The UK is pretty small, so it makes it very convenient to tour many cities.
There was so much build-up leading up to your flute recital back in the Spring. How did you feel when when that was over?
There was a lot of responsibility in terms of following up with people, because there were all these requests for gigs. Which was nice because as a musician, you want to be gigging. There were some requests for material I hadn’t really approached before, which led to some jazz quartets, a duo with Underbelly, Middle Eastern ensembles… Stuff that I wasn’t used to doing. Putting it all together given the tight time constraints was very difficult, but I did it!
What did your friends and family make of your sudden rise to fame in the UK?
“Make sure you still remember where you came from and don’t let the fame get to your head…”
Basically, “be who you’re supposed to be”.
Your flute beat boxing is incredible. How did you learn that?
I started learning in March. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time but never had the chance to because of the repertoire I was playing. I finally got the chance, and I really wanted to do it for my senior flute recital so… I did.
What inspired you to go into classical and electronic / hip hop crossover?
Well, I know that it’s more commercial and it’s more relevant to a lot of audiences. I’ve always enjoyed playing that type of music, it’s just that I never really had a strong reason to, and I feel like now I do.
So do you feel like fusing these different genres is opening up instrumental music to new audiences? Is that something you care about?
Yes, actually I’m focusing on trying to build a bridge between the flute and different kinds of genres. Because, you know, you’d never see a flute in a club. Just never. And doing that for the first time… it’s pretty cool. I don’t wanna say it’s revolutionary or anything, but it’s something different.
Do you ever feel like your music is not taken as seriously as you’d like it to be because of the whole ‘going-viral-on-the-internet’ thing?
Yes, but I think that may be because I haven’t recorded my music yet, so I’m focusing on doing that right now.
So tell me about your upcoming EP.
That’s going to be released in December. I’m going to do two actually. One will be a mix of some of my own hip hop, jazz and RnB, which I’ll try and send over to some producers to master, and the other will be with DJ Underbelly.
Are there any particular artists you’d really like to collaborate with in the future?
Katisse, Hubert Laws, Nestor Torres, Greg Pattillo (below) and a wide array of instrumentalists, singers, rappers, producers. It’s hard to name them all because I am interested in collaborating with so many different artists across genres. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to make these aspirations a reality.
Hip hop and electronic music aside, what’s your favourite piece to play on the flute?
There’s this piece called La Vie En Rose, which is just really beautiful. It sounds very nice on the flute. At least I like to think so!
Are you going to record it?
Yeah. One day.
How do you envisage your future? Do you want to carry on performing and touring?
I’m planning on performing, recording, teaching, composing, producing, and getting involved with charity.