Life & Work

Fascinating nightlife in Zanzibar


Photo\Masoud Khami The resident band, The Coconut, performing at Mercury’s. The band plays a mix of Kiswahili and English classics every Saturday night.

In the midst of the tropical island paradise of Zanzibar, lies a significant piece of pop music history.

A walk through the narrow alleyways of the Stone Town, leads you to Mercury House No. 39, the building where the late rock star, Freddie Mercury spent most of his childhood.

Mercury was born Farouk Bulsara on 5th September, 1946 to Parsi parents who had migrated to the East Africa island from India.

He was sent to boarding school in Bombay, India in 1955 and stayed there until 1963 when he returned to Zanzibar.

It was in India that Farouk became Freddie. At the age of 17, Mercury and his family fled to the UK during the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution.

Hits of all time

Together with guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor, he formed the group Queen in 1970 and they would go on to enjoy unparalleled success for the next decade and a half with total worldwide sales of 300 million albums.

As a songwriter, Mercury composed some of the biggest pop hits of all time: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We are the Champions”, “Another one bites the dust” and “We will rock you.”

In 2008, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him number 18 on their list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Mercury died in 1991, from complications arising from HIV/Aids.

Zanzibar retains reminders of its ties to the rock legend including the apartment where he and his sister were born and raised.

Mercury House, which has since been converted into a hotel, is on the main thoroughfare of the islands - nestled between restaurants, souvenir shops and forex bureaus.

Besides a sign board at the entrance with a biography of Mercury and the sight of several tourists taking pictures of the building, there is little else to indicate that this is the street where one of the world’s most revered pop legends was born.

Located right by the seaside is Mercury’s, a restaurant built as a tribute to the late singer where a local group of musicians called The Coconut Band play a mix of Kiswahili and English classics every Saturday night.

With pictures of Freddie Mercury and other Queen memorabilia at every corner, this is a spot that seems very popular with tourists.

A British engineer, who is visiting from the UK, wonders why the band is not playing a few more African tunes.

“As you can see, people enjoy dancing when it is a Brenda Fassie song,” he says, “and when they switch to Mariah Carey or Kenny Rogers then everyone is back to their seats.”

When guitarist Omari Juma hears that we are visitors from Kenya, he lightens up and tells us that his group once played with musicians from across the border:

“There was a period in the 1990s when we played with Them Mushrooms at a hotel in Arusha,” he says, “We learnt a lot about playing for a live audience from Teddy, John and Billy Katana.”

“For a predominantly Muslim island, Zanzibar has a thriving night life and social scene,” says Andrea Tapper, a German journalist who has been living on the island for the last four months.

Tea houses

A typical week for her starts with Tuesday Sundowner, at the Africa House, the 150-year- old former English club which provides a beautiful panorama as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean to the sound of traditional music.

Wednesday is the day for private dinner parties held in the so-called teahouses in the Stone Town.

These are centuries-old little roof top structures where people enjoy the cool sea breeze and the local “konyagi” late into the night.

The major attraction for Thursday is the national music of the island, taarab, with performances at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, right at the sea front.

“If you want contemporary Zanzibari cuisine, sunset cocktails and nice music, then head to the Emerson Spice, a new five-star hotel with a magnificent rooftop restaurant” says Tapper.

The hotel is named after a former New York City lawyer who has lived in Zanzibar for more than 20 years and is credited with shaping the island’s glamorous-cum-traditional appeal through events like the annual music festival, Sauti za Busara.

You cannot be in Zanzibar and not party at “Livingstone” a beach restaurant with candle-lit tables on the sand, which is converted into a disco from 10pm every Saturday.

The boisterous visitors to the island remain alive to the religious sensibilities of the locals and there is an unwritten agreement - the partying can be vibrant, without turning offensive.