The xalam is the most common stringed musical instrument in Gambia. Griots of many ethnic groups play it, including the
Mandinka, Fulbe, and
Tukulor. It probably came from the Bamana
of Mali through several different paths. The Bamana passed it on to
the Malinke in the south and to the Tukulor and Fulbe in the north,
and these groups passed it on in separate waves to the Wolof and
Because of the variety of paths the xalam has taken and the
many different groups who have embraced it, the xalam shows great
regional diversity in its construction, playing style, and repertoire.
It generally has a dryer, more nasal sound than the
The xalam was formerly played primarily as a solo instrument or to
accompany songs, although today it is often amplified to allow it to
play alongside sabars,
Djembes, koras, and other instruments. In
Wolof-speaking areas in Gambia, people who play the xalam are often
called jeli, which comes from the Bamana word for
griots. Fulbe xalam
players are often called bambaado.
Construction & Playing Method:
The xalam has a wooden body and neck and a cowhide face. Its
fishing-line strings are fastened to the neck by long cowhide straps.
There are two melody strings and between 2 and 4 supplementary octave
strings. Most xalams have 4 to 5 total strings, although some have up
The player fingers the neck with the left hand, as with the Western
guitar, and plucks the strings with the thumb and index finger of the
right hand. The left hand only fingers the two melody strings, and the
others are only plucked like a harp. Sometimes the octave strings are
referred to as the "kora strings," since they could
be strummed to imitate a kora, or harp-lute.
In traditional contexts, the xalam is most often used to accompany
spoken and sung histories and praise songs. Often, one griot plays a
repeated motif while another tells a story, pausing from time to time
to allow the xalam player to improvise. In Mande societies (Mandinka,
Malinke, Bamana), the xalam may be accompanied by a Kora or
(xylophone). In many places, xalam players are considered to be the
greatest griots and were in former times an important part of the
Today, xalams are often included in popular and semi-traditional music
groups. They are much more prevalent in Gambian popular
music than the
Kora, and many groups have up to three or four xalam players.
Every region has its preferred tunings, although a few have become
standard throughout Gambia. Assuming, for convenience, that the
xalam's tuning is based on the key of C (although in practice a player
can tune it to any pitch), here are a few of the more common tunings,
represented as a close-up of the lower part of the neck.
Although there are many xalam players in Gambia and Senegal today,
many people believe that the tradition of great playing is dying
out. A group of "Great Griots" that formed after independence to
support the Senegalese Socialist Party included several legendary
griots, most of whom are no longer living and have left no successors.
The Gambians also compare their xalam players to Malian xalam (ngoni)
players like Banzoumana Cissokho, who is reputed to have been such an
expert player that he could get up and leave the room and his xalam
would continue 'playing' without him.
Legendary xalam players Ama Ndiaye Samb, Abdoulaye Nar Samb, and
Abdoulaye Socé (the father of my xalam teacher, Malick Socé) have all
died. The only xalam player left from this group is Samba Diabaré Samb,
who is the only one from his family to play the xalam. Boucounta
Ndiaye, who is a bit younger than Samb, is the closest anyone has come
to rivalling the old group in greatness.