The xalam is the most common stringed musical instrument
in Gambia. Griots of many ethnic groups play it, including
the Wolof, Serer, Mandinka, Fulbe, and Tukulor. It probably
came from the Bamana of Mali through several different
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 Kora.
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 to
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 Balafon (xylophone). In many places, xalam players
are considered to be the greatest griots and were in
former times an important part of the royal courts.
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
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.