Stone Town, Zanzibar (CNN) — Down a small, narrow alley in the historic Stone Town neighborhood of Zanzibar, an old building beckons to visitors. Faded photographs are pinned outside the door while inside, a gallery of glossy pictures and old newspaper clippings lead the way to the room’s centerpiece: a black piano with an interesting history.
A young Zanzibari boy once played that piano. His name was Farrokh Bulsara, but you probably know him better as Freddie Mercury.
The flamboyant frontman of British rock band Queen, Mercury was born in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island off the coast of Tanzania. This museum is dedicated to his memory.
Freddie Mercury (center, front) poses with Queen bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, circa 1973.
A melting pot of cultures and traditions, Zanzibar is known for its sunsets and spices, and has grown in popularity as a tourist destination since Stone Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.In the wake of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the hit 2018 film that earned Rami Malek an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mercury, the late singer’s popularity here is also on the rise.Zanzibari businessman Javed Jafferji is co-owner of the Freddie Mercury Museum. Jafferji was a college student in London in the mid-1980s when he first became a fan. “At that time, not many people knew [Mercury] was from Zanzibar,” he says.
Even today, many people don’t know about Mercury’s Zanzibari roots, says Jafferji. His goal is to put Stone Town on the rock history map.
Musical talent blossoms in Zanzibar
Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946, in Stone Town.
The Bulsara family were Parsis from India — followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion.
It is believed that young Farrokh first started singing in the town’s Zoroastrian Temple when he was a child.
At the time, there were some 300 members of the Parsi community in Zanzibar. Today, only a handful remain, and the temple has long been abandoned.
This photo, showing Freddie Mercury on his 4th birthday in Zanzibar, is one of the rare childhood pictures on display in the museum.
Freddie Mercury Museum Zanzibar
Mercury spent most of his childhood in Zanzibar, and attended boarding school in India. In the early 1960s, his family moved to the UK.
Less than a decade later, Mercury formed Queen — and went on to attain rock legend status. He never returned to his birthplace.
Honoring a hometown hero
In 2002, Jafferji opened a small souvenir shop called The Mercury House in a former home of the Bulsara family.
“I realized that there’s history behind this building,” he says.
Nearly two decades later, the release of the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” inspired Jafferji to think big. A surprise visit to Zanzibar by Queen guitarist Brian May sealed the deal.
“[May] took a picture outside the building and [posted it] on his Instagram page,” says Jafferji.
Jafferji and his friend Andrea Boero, also a Mercury fan, partnered with Queen Productions Ltd. in the UK to convert The Mercury House into a museum, chronicling Mercury’s early years in Zanzibar. The museum opened on November 24, 2019, the 28th anniversary of Mercury’s death.
However, in March, the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the museum had to close. They also had to postpone the launch of the Mercury Tour, a guided walking tour to spots in Stone Town where Mercury spent his childhood.
Despite the setback, Jafferji and his team are optimistic about the future.
“We really want to create awareness of Freddie Mercury in Zanzibar and in Tanzania overall,” says Anam Adnan, general manager of the museum. “We want people to celebrate him and to love him.”
But celebrating Freddie Mercury in Zanzibar is complicated. Had Mercury returned there later in life, he would have likely struggled to gain acceptance in a predominantly Muslim community where homosexuality is illegal.
“We haven’t put much attention to his personal life because that’s a controversial topic for Zanzibaris,” says Adnan. Instead, she says, the museum focuses on Mercury’s music and his art. “It’s the biggest tribute that we, as Zanzibaris, can do for him.”