Zanzibar. An exotic sounding destination in East Africa off the Indian ocean. A land filled with monkeys of two species, a multitude of butterflies, and spices originally brought from India by the Portuguese. A land once ruled by the Sultan of Oman who brought with him Muslim influence in a territory that was simultaneously a British protectorate. A tiny dot of an island that was once home to the slave trade in that part of Africa. I learned all this and more when I took the Zanzibar post-trip with Overseas Adventure Travel on their trip to Tanzania called Safari Serengeti.
Zanzibar as we know it today was the result of a revolution in 1963 when the island wanted its independence after the British protectorate was abolished and the ruling Sultan of Oman was to take over completely. What resulted in 1964 was a new country called Tanzania – a blending of the names Tanganyika (from the mainland) and Zanzibar, which itself became an autonomous region in the new Tanzania. Those who wanted to leave, which included many of the Asian Indians, were allowed to go to England.
The island is really part of an archipelago. The two largest islands are Unjuja where Stone Town (part of Zanzibar City) is located, and Pemba . But the beauty of Zanzibar does not just lie in its white sand beaches and crystalline waters, or even in the sunsets amid the palm trees and local boats. The true local color for me was in Stone Town, an ageing part of Zanzibar City that has kept its authenticity through small winding streets, multiple mosques in the center of the town, and old buildings that in some cases look to be in disrepair even though the city has a lot of the original coral stone. Add into the mix the call to prayer five times a day, coming from five different mosques in different directions; a still strong Indian influence from Asia; an ornate Catholic church; remnants of the slave trade; and open air markets, fish markets, and a night market that sells its own special Zanzibar pizza. When the portrait of Zanzibar is painted this way, an even broader picture emerges. For Zanzibar refuses to be defined by one single part of its history, its spices, its fishermen its monkeys, or its traditional ways; it’s too varied and complex for that.
I honestly think the diverse makeup of Zanzibar’s recent history has made its way into our popular culture as well; but it happened when we were not looking. Farrokh Bulsara left the island for England in 1964, changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and formed the influential rock band Queen. When I was there hearing the calls to prayer, I couldn’t help but think that his famous call and response solo when he sang, “Ayyyyy-oh” to audiences who responded back enthusiastically in kind, was influenced along with his creativity by the sounds of the island. Muslim music and chanting often includes a call and response, and even some musicologists claim the Muslims got that from the slaves in West Africa. Although Mercury was Zoroastrian with Indian and Persian heritage, it’s not difficult to see cultures blending in such a small area of land. Love it or not, there is a deliberate and complex diversify to his musical creations which span from classical Opera, to lyrical ballads, to raw rock and roll to disco, and with a four octave vocal range along with prolific songwriting and piano playing ability . I can’t help but believe his talent and ability for complex chord and song structures which were innovative for its time, sprung from a modern and very Western inspiration from having lived in Zanzibar with early education in Mumbai, India. Music is a part of any musician’s soul.
I only learned about Queen’s ongoing influence and legacy once I returned home from the trip, since I never made it inside the small museum which is where Mercury’s family once lived . I was obviously never a follower of the music. But this is what travel opens up for us; an ability to punch a hole in the sky from which we landed and see how that country and it’s cultures influenced others who in turn have influenced our own. This cultural ” chain of custody” can take many forms and spring from many diverse types of contributors besides musicians. Artists, scientists, politicians and academics among others have graced their country’s skylines or beaches and dedicated their lives to making significant contributions, even though some may not have been recognized as such during their lifetimes. We as travelers owe it to ourselves to reap the benefits of their labor once we learn about it firsthand. It is the sort of learning experience that will find its way down into the generations. Otherwise, as Freddie Mercury would have said about it all (I recently learned), “Don’t bore me with it, darlings.”