Saturday, June 6, 2009

West African Music Instrument

Xalam, also spelt khalam is the wolof (a language spoken in Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania) name for a traditional stringed musical instrument from West Africa. The xalam was originally thought to have originated from modern-day Mali but some believe that in antiquity, the instrument may have come from ancient Egypt. It is also believed to be the ancestor to the American banjo.

Someone who plays the xalam is called a xalamkat (a word composed of the verbal form of xalam, meaning "to play the xalam," and the agentive suffix -kat, thus meaning "one who xalams")

The xalam in its standard form is a simple lute chordophone with one to five strings. The wooden body (the soundbox) of the instrument is oval-shaped and covered with the hide of cattle. The strings of the xalam is typically made up of two or three tightly wound strands of low-gauge nylon fishing line. These are fixed to the instruments wooden neck by long, narrow leather strips and to the wooden bridge by cotton strings. By moving these strips the instrument’s tune can be adjusted. Most xalam players (or xalamkat) construct their own xalams although they usually call on woodworkers to card the body, neck and bridge for them.

While living and working in Guinea, I bought a xalam (pictured in all the above photos) at a village market. Mine has EIGHT strings so I wonder if I inadvertently acquired an ethnic Gibson. Mmm?
I can definitely hear notes when I pick at the strings but most need tightening. I’ll have to wait for hubby to come home and fix my xalam for me.


  1. Jo,this was interesting. Isn't it amazing how Africans are just naturally musical. We have lots of Sudanese and Nigerian friends here and they all are so musically talented. Sometimes in the Expat church we attend they will lead the music service and those services are so amazing. I feel really blessed to experience being able to worship with other cultures and nationalities. It is just a little taste of what's to come.

  2. Amen, Jackleen. I also look forward to the day we can all make music together in harmony and unity. I am off to the Sudan later this year and cannot wait. Thanks for visiting me. Blessings and (((hugs)))

  3. I have not seen this instrument before. I see the similarity of the American banjo. Blogging and joining memes brought me to different sites around the globe and have learned a lot about different cultures. Thank you for your good words, and I try to post and amuse my readers, the other "giggly" side of me. Thanks for the visit. Have a nice weekend.

  4. Very exotic instrument. My husband is really impressed by the giant tree in the water - so I thought I will relay his thoughts to you! Great view! I totally agree!

  5. Hi Jo, While decorating my sons room some years ago I bought one of these. It had 3 strings. He now plays guitar and held on to that xalam. I always wondered about the name. I am happy to know it and will be passing the info on to my son, thanks

  6. What a great instrument. You must learn to play it! This was a very interesting post. Thanks!

  7. Hi Ebie;)yes, Google says this could be the antique American banjo. I love blogging and as you say, you learn so much about other parts of the world and other cultures. Thanks for popping in.

    Hi ellievelli;) Thanks for you and your husbands comments. My friend who was on the course with me was taking photos to the far right of this scene. When she saw my photos, she was disappointed that she'd not used the same vantage point as I had. We were many on the course and there that morning, yet I was the only one with these shots.

    Hi redkathy, thanks for visiting. How interesting that you have on of these instruments. Yes, I didn't even know the name while in West Africa but now I do and I'm pleased you can pass this info onto your son. Big (((Hugs) from South Africa

    Hi Dedene;) Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure that I could learn this instrument. I've never had the slightest desire to play the guitar and yet I play the piano, organ, mouth organ, piano accordian, keyboard and recorder (wind istrument) Once my dh has repaired it I will try to get a sound from the strings...

  8. Very nice article. Your blog is an open window to Africa. I love to travel and hoping to visit Africa some time!


Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate your feedback. Jo