I have ended up down a rabbit hole.
The song itself is an odd creole of a song. Arabic, Parsi and English mashed together, with elements of muezzinish vocal stylings and klezmeric rhythms. It sits somewhere between a call to prayer and a shouting stamp, and a not entirely vague sense of appropriation.
My musicology isn’t strong enough to dig around what’s actually going on here.
So I tried to dig into what was being appropriated, and what it might mean, and instead ended up drowning in Freddie’s early life and the politics of Zanzibar.
So Freddie was born in Stone Town, Zanzibar, to an Indian family. His surname was Bulsara, taken from the town of Bulsar near Ahmedabad, in Gujarat. His family lived in Zanzibar for the bulk of his childhood, although he actually went to school near Mumbai. Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) remains a 99% Islamic country, and it’s highly likely this is where some of the inspiration for the prayer like elements of this song comes from, but who knows. His family was Parsi Zoroastrian, with roots in Persia, rather than India.
Zanzibar was part of the Portugeuse colonies for quite a while, before being taken over by Oman, and then becoming a protectorate of the British Empire. This meant it kept sovereignty with the Arabic Sultanate, but was effectively part of the Empire. The allegedly Empire got involved mostly to stop the slave trade (but was no doubt benefiting from it up to that point, so lets not pretend there were any good guys here).
And of course, the Sultans ruled under the approval of the British, so when one they didn’t like came a long, they just put some governors in their place. (In order to do this the Royal Navy declared war, destroyed the palace, and a ceasefire was declared 83 minutes after the start of hostilities, officially the shortest war ever. Again, let’s not forget we’re talking about people dying horribly so that Britain could get it’s way and keep its trade routes open.)
So Freddie and family were born into this situation. Part of a wealthy ruling class. But in the early sixties people were getting pissed off. The British were pulling away, and installing somewhat democratic institutions. Gerrymandering meant that majority of votes in elections were going to African-aligned parties, while the government was still being held by the Arabic-aligned parties. The racial divisions were clear, and almost as the British pulled out (not quite granting independence, as technically it was never a colony), a revolution happened, leading to brutal violence across the country directed at the Arabic community.
Unsurprisingly, this was all pretty grim. It doesn’t feel like anyone comes out of the full story well.
Freddie and family got out just before all of this (I’ve read conflicting reports here, some put it a year before the revolution, some put it during). So he was fleeing from his brutal racially motivated, after enjoying the benefits of colonially supported class privilege, all while being dominated by the biggest, nastiest empire.
I have no idea what to make of it.
I’m glad the song pulled me to dig into this. It’s so easy to broadly wash out the years of Empire as ‘bad things a long time ago’ and not think of the detail and horrors that came from it. It’s also terrible to oversimplify in the way I have above…but hopefully you know I’m just trying to point you towards a lot of bigger and smaller stories. And you can dig in yourself.
And all that really leads me to the song is that yes, Freddie will have heard a lot of Islamic singing as a child.
The other bit of reading, perhaps a little more warming, is this interview with his family, discussing his pride in his Parsi roots.
The song is a rollicking intro to an odd album. It marks Queen as very different to other bands, although it still makes me worry about how sensitive they are to the cultures they pull from (importantly, Islam is not Freddie’s culture, and, with regard to previous worries, his childhood was likely spent very close to racist attitudes towards black Africa).
The mash of languages is matched by the mash of tones and musical styles. The whole thing sits very oddly, but the record would be less rich without it. And Freddie’s voice is incredible.
For what it’s worth, apparently Freddie said it was all nonsense loosely based on bits of languages, but not really with any underlying meaning.
I don’t know what to make of it. But I’m glad I tried.
Sorry if I’ve got everything horribly wrong.
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.
Illustration by Emma.