Tracing Mercury’s Zanzibar roots

Friday February 1 2019


By Mpoki Thomson

Freddie Mercury is a name mentioned alongside the likes of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, James Brown, and so many other great musicians to have ever lived.

When I heard that they were making a biopic about Mercury, I was instantly ecstatic and filled with intrigue.

It might not be widely known around the world, but this iconic figure, someone considered a music legend, was actually born in Tanzania – Zanzibar to be exact.

Before watching Bohemian Rhapsody at the cinema, my anticipation was over the roof, thinking about how Mercury’s rise to stardom would shine a glimpse of light towards his African roots - an exploration of his past from childhood.

But that wasn’t the case, the movie, in a blurred attempt at highlighting Mercury’s African heritage, devoted a mere mention to Zanzibar, which happens to be Freddie Mercury’s first abode on earth.

Considering the influence Zanzibar had towards shaping Mercury’s music career, one would expect much more credit to be given to the East African Island.

Freddie Mercury was born in Tanzania’s Indian Ocean archipelago, Zanzibar in 1946 and given the birth name Farrokh Bulsara.

Born in Stone Town, a British protectorate back then, Mercury grew up in the spice infused and characterful seaside town. He spent his early years wandering through the ancient streets of the historical town.

Mercury’s parents migrated from India to Zanzibar after his father, Bomi Mercury got a job as a cashier at the British colonial office on the island.

Even though Mercury was born in Zanzibar, he was born a British citizen, and remained so throughout his life.

Mercury had a passion for music from a young age. He manifested such love in his daily life, he couldn’t be tamed as he became more and more connected to music. As a result, his parents had to send him off to a prestigious boarding school in India (St Peter’s Church of England). This, however, did little to restrain him from wanting to pursue his true passion – music. At the age of 12, he formed a school band, The Hectics, and covered rock and roll artistes.

The sheer desire to branch off and become a musician, made Mercury fail to concentrate on his studies.

His grades declined and he ultimately chose to spend the last few years of his course in the Roman Catholic St Joseph’s Convent School in Zanzibar.

From a wealthy family, Mercury lived in a flat in a prime location in Stone Town. It is in Stone Town where he first fell in love with music.

The charm and rich history of the island was infused in his early music preference. Unfortunately, Mercury couldn’t leave out his music career in Zanzibar due to the political situation at that time.

In 1964, a revolution broke out in the Isles (Zanzibar Revolution). Mercury, aged 17 at that time, had to leave with his family due to the political tension that saw the killings of many Arabs and Indians on the island. His family was forced to flee to England in search of refuge.

Six years after leaving Zanzibar, Mercury, who was a fan of the British rock band Smile, joined the group and together they formed ‘Queen’.

The British singer created his own legacy after joining the rock band Smile and suggesting the change of name to ‘Queen’ in 1970 in London. He became a global sensation and was considered an icon in many parts of the world after the songs “We are the Champions” and “We will Rock you” hit the airwaves.

But it was the release of Bohemian Rhapsody that truly cemented Queen as a formidable rock band, and Freddie Mercury in particular as a gifted singer. By 1980s, the band had become one of the greatest in the world.

With all the allure alluded to his music career, little has been written or publicised about Mercury’s early life and place of birth, which happens to be right here in Tanzania.

Back at his birth place in Zanzibar, Mercury’s legacy and history has not been forgotten. Strolling down the narrow streets where he spent a part of his childhood, one can still sense the aura of vibrancy that influenced Mercury’s early life and his free-spirited persona.

As a token of remembrance, Stone Town has a bar named after Mercury (Mercury’s Bar). It is a great tourist attraction site where carousers get to run down memory lane and are availed to little known facts about the life and times of Mercury in Zanzibar.

Considered one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music, Mercury died from Aids related complications in 1991.