It was literally poetic justice when West African music legend Sekouba Bambino escaped the Radisson Blu in Mali and gave the police key intel on the religious extremists who attacked the hotel, took 170 people hostage and killed at least 20 on Friday.
Malian commandos later stormed the hotel in Bamako, the country’s capital, and freed the surviving hostages.
Bambino, a superstar in West Africa, is one of many famous musicians in Mali, arguably the birthplace of the blues, who were silenced for more than a year when Islamists took over the north in January 2012 and violently forbid all music when they imposed sharia law.
Bambino, 51, born in neighboring Guinea to a Malian mother, comes from more than 50 generations of griots, the original rappers, whose centuries-long tradition involves storytelling set to music.
Fittingly, then, Bambino was the first to drop a dime on the shooters by telling police they were speaking English when they stopped to reload.
He was hiding out in his hotel room having just finished his morning prayers when he first heard suspicious sounds on the other side of his door.
“Initially I thought they were petty criminals,” Bambino told NBC News. But after third shot “from a very heavy weapon” he realized it was no ordinary crime.
“It felt like this wasn’t just simple pistols,” he said. “There were shots from military weapons.”
Bambino’s first language is French but he told police that he could recognize the voices of the attackers outside his room speaking “in English with a Nigerian accent.”
“I heard them say in English: ‘Did you load it?’, ‘Let’s go,” he told NBC. He said he remained as still as he could in his room as he heard the shooters talk about getting more ammunition.
He escaped when Malian police knocked on his door around 8 a.m. local time and brought him and many other hostages out of the hotel.
Islamist militant group Al Mourabitoun, which is linked to al Qaeda and based in the deserts of northern Mali, claimed responsibility for the attack in a tweet. Al Jazeera said the group sent an email with an audio recording saying it was behind the attack.
Bambino was in Bamako for a concert Saturday night and he released a Youtube video a few days ago saying how it had been five years since he had performed there and how he was looking forward to it, promising a “soiree extraordinaire.”
“You hear his music everywhere, all throughout the region,” said Bruce Whitehouse, a Mali expert at Lehigh University who lived in Bamako and maintains a blog on region and its politics. “His style and language resonate well beyond Mali’s borders.”
Bambino is not as well-known to the West as the late Ali Farka Touré or the blind husband and wife duo of Amadou or Mariam, also part of Mali’s rich modern musical heritage. But they have all suffered from the nightmarish ban on music in the north.
Some musicians were beaten, others imprisoned and their instruments were smashed in 2012 and 2013. Many fled to neighboring countries like Algeria during the Islamist occupation.
Bamako, in the south, one of the most thriving centers of music on the African continent was also placed under emergency rule by the government in 2014 and nightclubs and other venues were shut down.
Religious extremists once broke into the Mali home of Khaira Arby, one of Africa’s most admired musicians in 2012 and destroyed her instruments, even though one of her most famous songs praises Allah. They told her that she could not sing anymore.
“They told my neighbors that if they ever caught me, they would cut my tongue out,” Arby told the Washington Post in 2012.
Mali singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara was so upset after returning to Mali in late when Islamist fighters were still controlling the north that she wrote a song called “Mali-ko (Peace/LaPaix)” slamming the extremists and cautioning Malians not to blame the Tuareg minority for enabling the fighters. Diawara gathered a supergroup of Malian artists to perform in the video.
“Music is everything in Mali. Like being in touch with God,” Diawara said.
Mali’s famed Festival of the Desert was always held in Timbuktu in the north until the extremists banned in 2013. Bono came to the festival in 2012.
“It’s part of West Africa, which is the cradle of music. It’s like the Big Bang of all the music that we love,” he said.