To his legions of fans, Freddie Mercury was a flamboyant, and very British, rock star. But in the background was a much more complex sense of identity, summed up by one picture, a black and white image of a baby called Farrokh Bulsara smiling in his pram, watched over by an African nanny in the gardens of the home in colonial Zanzibar where his Indian parents lived.
Published in The Sunday Telegraph |via DNA India
The little boy in the pram would go on to change his name to Freddie Mercury, achieving wealth and fame before a life cut short at 45 by Aids. As he became a worldwide star, little was said of his childhood in the dying days of Empire, being brought up by his Indian parents in wealth – then having to flee a bloody revolution that took the family to London to build a new life.
The pictures of life before fame were made public as his family prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of his death and discuss their pride in his Asian heritage. Mercury’s background, his family is Parsee, followers of the Zoroastrian religion, whose ancestors came from Persia, was never at the forefront as he sang in Queen. There were sometimes whispers in the Asian community that he ignored his heritage. But to his family it was an essential part of his identity.
His father, Bomi, was born in India and went to a British possession in Africa to work as a registrar for the colonial government, taking with him his wife Jer. They brought up Mercury and his younger sister Kashmira, in Zanzibar, now a part of Tanzania, but then a colony in its own right.
When he was eight Mercury was sent to St Peter’s, a boarding school near his parents’ home city of Bombay, now Mumbai, and showed a natural talent for the piano. Jer Bulsara recalled, "He was quite happy and saw it as an adventure as some of our friends’ children had gone there. Right from the start, Freddie was musical. He had it on his mind all the time. He could play any tune. He could hear something and play it straight away."
He honed his piano skills by playing Indian tunes, then joined his first band, called The Hectics. When he left school, now known as Freddie, a nickname given to him by schoolmates, he returned to Zanzibar, but its independence in 1963 was followed by a revolution which saw the largely poor Africans involved in riots that targeted the wealthier Indian population.
The Bulsaras fled in 1964 and settled in Feltham, west London, swapping a life of servants and sunshine for a semi-detached home in the suburbs. Mercury enrolled at Isleworth Polytechnic to study graphic design, but it was music that entranced him.
Mrs Bulsara, 89, said, "He would write songs from an early age. I kept on saying, as all mothers do, ‘carry on with your studies and clean up your bedroom."
"Once when I went into his bedroom at our home in Feltham, I told him I was going to clear up all the rubbish including the papers under his pillow. But he said ‘Don’t you dare’. He was writing little songs and lyrics then and putting them under his pillow before he slept. It was more music than studying and my husband said he didn’t understand what this boy was going to do. I made him type some letters for jobs and when he posted the applications he said, ‘I hope I don’t get these jobs."
"The applications were for graphic design. Had he got one of those jobs, things would have been quite different. In the end, he thought it was too much because he was in his bedroom most of the time and elderly neighbours were complaining about the noise and he decided to leave home."
Mercury formed Queen with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon and the band’s first major concert was as a support act to Mott the Hoople at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973. His parents were the very antithesis of the glam rock movement which was sweeping the nation, but they were there, somewhat to the surprise of members of the audience.
"My favourite memory of him is that very first concert at Hammersmith Odeon," Mrs Bulsara said. "My boy was showing the best of himself as support to Mott the Hoople. When the show was over people came over to me and my husband and said it was nice that we supported him. I said simply ‘Well, he is my son.’ Rock and roll was not my lifestyle, but I said I would attend every concert. It was very exciting for me. It was 1973 and he always used to dress flamboyantly.
"But I used to tell him to have his hair cut short as it was long. He said, ‘No, no mum, that is the way I am. But when short hair came into fashion he said, ‘You see I’ve had it cut short. I did it.’"
As he was on the verge of musical success, he failed his driving test, but told his family not to worry. "He said it didn’t matter. I said he didn’t want to spend his life on buses and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter because one day I will be chauffeur driven everywhere.’ I thought that my boy certainly had a dream." As he became more famous, his Asian upbringing and heritage faded increasingly into the background. But it was never something he forgot himself, his family say – being Asian was part of his life.
His background made his sense of identity complex. Being a Parsee meant he identified more with his Persian ancestry than India, where his parents were brought up and he was educated. Roger Cooke, his brother in law, said, "To an English mind, Asian means Indian. It doesn’t in Freddie’s particular case, he was Persian by ancestry.’ There were people who said he was burying his Asian roots and he was accused of denying his Indian heritage. I don’t think he ever did, but if he did, it would have been because he was Persian," Mr Cooke said. Mercury’s mother added: ”Freddie was a Parsee and he was proud of that, but he wasn’t particularly religious."
At the height of his fame, the singer would want nothing more than to sit in the kitchen while his mother cooked for him. "He wanted to be as normal as possible," Mrs Bulsara said. "Business was on one side and his family on the other. He would come home and say, ‘Mum are you making your special cheese biscuits?’ Whenever he was in the studio and working long hours, he would say, ‘Mum, make some more because all the boys are there,’ and I would say, ‘of course, why not.’"
This week his mother and sister will attend The Asian Awards in London to receive a posthumous honour on his behalf – The Founders Award for his outstanding contribution to music. Their presence will highlight a combination of love of Mercury with pride in his roots. But the greatest comfort his family have is that his songs remain ubiquitous.
Kashmira said, "We are very proud and happy of him. The group has been together 40 years, but 20 of them without Freddie. That really hits me hard because when you are hearing Freddie on a daily basis, you lose track of time. He has been dead 20 years this November, that is a long time.
"Because we hear him every day, it is almost as if he is around. I don’t have to play his records because they are on the radio every day." Mrs Bulsara summed up the family’s sense of pride. "The whole world seems to know him," she said. "They know who Freddie Mercury is. My boy was a genius. It makes me proud that he remains my Freddie and has not been forgotten. It is because God loved him more. That’s why he was taken away.