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Subash Shah, who teaches at Winston-Salem State University, was a boyhood friend of singer Freddie Mercury. Shah is holding an address book with Mercurys listing in England.
Subash Shah, who teaches at Winston-Salem State University, was a boyhood friend of singer Freddie Mercury. Shah is holding an address book with Mercury's listing in England.
(relish photos by Jason Arthurs)

Freddie Mercury, WSSU professor were boyhood friends in India, Zanzibar

Thursday, July 7, 2005

relish staff writer

We know him as Freddie Mercury, the swaggering lead singer for Queen whose taste for drugs, sex and pomp was legendary even by the hedonistic standards of the 1970s.

Subash Shah knew him as Buckwheat, a shy, insecure boy with a severe overbite who grew up on the island of Zanzibar, mimicking the moves of Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley.

Shah, 58, is a professor of political science at Winston-Salem State University. He and Mercury were boyhood chums who later drifted apart after political upheaval forced them to flee Zanzibar. Mercury and his family moved to England. Shah's parents sent him and his sister to Ohio.

Shah has lived in Winston-Salem since 1979. Among the possessions that link him to Mercury is a black-and-white photograph of a group of boys taken at a boarding school in India that he and Mercury attended in the late 1950s. Shah pointed to himself in one corner of the photograph, then to a smiling boy with a mouthful of teeth and a mass of black hair.

"There's Buckwheat," Shah said.

Shah flipped the pages of a small, worn address book that he took with him when he moved to Ohio. There, printed in Shah's handwriting, is the address for the newly relocated Farrokh Bomi Bulsara - Mercury's birth name - of Middlesex, England.

Nobody ever called Mercury "Farrokh." The nickname "Buckwheat" did not seem to bother him.

Shah and Mercury share many similarities. They were both born on Sept. 5, 1946. Though they lived just a few hundred yards from each other, they met at a boys' school in India, about 2,400 miles from their homes in Zanzibar.

"Our lives were parallel except he went into music," Shah said. Zanzibar is a small island off the coast of Tanzania. When Mercury and Shah were boys, Great Britain controlled the island (today it is part of Tanzania). Mercury's father was a civil servant for the British government.

Shah is the oldest of eight children. In 1958, after Shah flunked fifth grade, his father sent him to an English boarding school in India, not far from Bombay.

Mercury and Shah were the only two boys in the school from Zanzibar. Their friendship was forged after they spent 10 days or so together traveling by ship from the school to their home. Shah remembers playing endless games of ping pong with Mercury during that journey.

At the boarding school, Mercury was one of the few boys who chose to learn piano.

"That wasn't a common thing," Shah said. "He had an uncanny ability to listen to the radio and replay what he heard on piano. His orientation was music and art. That was very clear. He would always end up imitating some of the moves of Cliff Richard or Elvis."

Shah would needle Mercury about mimicking others.

"My running argument was, 'Buckwheat, why don't you be yourself?' Hindsight tells me that this was his way of developing his skills," he said.

Mercury was a good athlete, holding his own in cricket and field hockey. Later, he developed into a decent boxer with a strong left hook, Shah said.

After Shah had spent a few years at the boarding school, his father decided to enroll him in a local school. About 10 days after enrolling, Shah looked up and saw Mercury walking into class. Mercury's days at the boarding school were also over.

By this time, the boys were good friends. Shah used to go to Mercury's house for tea and biscuits, then walk with him to the beach where they would talk. "We saw each other every day," Shah said.

Mercury was "super introverted," Shah said. He saw no signs of the flamboyance and appetite for excessiveness that became Mercury's hallmarks.

At the time, Zanzibar was so conservative that even holding a girl's hand was considered taboo.

Mercury was a loner with conflicted feelings about his cultural heritage, Shah said. Mercury's parents were Zoroastrians, an ancient Persian faith whose followers fled Iran because of religious persecution. Mercury's parents wound up in India before settling in Zanzibar.

"When you feel like a cultural nomad, you're here but you don't belong to any group. Physically, people look like you, but at the psychic level, you don't have cultural connections," Shah said.

In 1964, Zanzibar gained independence and merged with Tanganyika to become Tanzania. Fearing unrest, Mercury and his family moved to England. Shah and his sister moved in with a family near Cleveland, Ohio.

Shah wrote Mercury a few times a year until 1968. Mercury never responded. "I realized he crossed over to the other culture," Shah said.

Mercury went on to study graphic design in college, then formed Queen in 1970. The band, one of the most popular of decade, melded bombast, camp and hard rock to create an original sound that continues to influence musicians.

At the center was Mercury, who wrote many of the band's best-known songs including "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Are the Champions" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

Shah followed the academic route, earning a doctorate degree in public policy from Kent State University. His musical tastes lean toward jazz. He wasn't aware that his good friend Buckwheat was a rock star until 1991, the year Mercury died of complications from AIDS at the age of 45.

Shah delved into Queen's catalog of music and read interviews with Mercury. Upon hearing "Another One Bites the Dust" and "We Will Rock You," Shah realized that he had been hearing Mercury's music for years at basketball games.

The a cappella introduction to "Bohemian Rhapsody" reminds Shah of the Muslim call to prayer he heard each dawn in Zanzibar.

"When I first heard that, it seemed to me that he had incorporated some of that island spirit (in the song)," he said.

Shah is careful not to judge Mercury, but he wishes his friend had talked more about Zanzibar. For example, at the Live AID concert to raise money for Ethiopia in 1985, Mercury remained mum about his personal ties to Africa.

"Biologically, he was not African, but by God, he was born there," Shah said. "Young people would look at these parts of the world differently."
 
lo'donnell@wsjournal.com

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