Hoddu (Xalam)


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This hoddu, a kind of lute, comes from the music-making practices of the Fulbe people who reside in the Mandé region of West Africa. Mandé refers to the Mandé empire (1235-1469 A.D.), whose geographical shadow includes present-day Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia. This lute also belongs to a wide web of similar instruments across North Africa and Northern sub-Saharan Africa.

This particular lute has a narrow, oval-shaped, trough-like resonator carved from a single piece of wood, whose width is about the same length as its height. An animal hide is stretched over the resonator, creating a soundboard, which is fastened to the resonator with wooden pegs. It has a straight neck, which pierces the membrane at the upper end of the resonator. The fan-shaped bridge, protruding through a soundhole cut into the membrane is attached to the bottom of the neck, whose end hangs freely inside the resonator. Significantly, it has three strings, two long and one short, attached to the neck with rings made from animal hide.

Both the shape of the bridge and the number of strings is distinct to the Fulbe hoddu. As is the case with other lutes found in the Mandé region, the name, hoddu, derives from the word for “finger” in Pular, the language spoken by the Fulbe, which is hondu. Other examples include the koni, which shares its name with the word for finger in the Maninka language spoken by Malinke people, and the konting, which takes its name from konondingo, the word for finger in the Mandinka language.

Some of the earliest references to lutes like this one in the Mandé region come from al-’Umari and Ibn Battuta in the mid-fourteenth century. The instrument and its predecessors have existed for much longer, however. Some trace African lutes all the way back to the thirteenth century B.C. in Egypt, examples of which are also found in the Met’s collection (accession #12.181.294), although ethnomusicologist Scott Linford makes the important point that “we cannot definitively disprove the reverse hypothesis: that plucked lutes entered Egypt from West African sources prior to 1730 BCE” (2016: 94).

In the Mandé region, specifically, these instruments’ origins likely reside in the Wagadu empire (also known by the Arabic term Ghana), which was ruled by the Soninke people; included parts of present-day Mali, Senegal and southern Mauritania; and existed sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries C.E. up until the rise of the Mandé empire in the thirteenth century, albeit fractured. A source of this kingdom’s power, and the Mandé kingdom’s power as well, was its repositories of gold. “The Western Sudan was, from the eighth century until the discovery of America, the chief supplier of gold for the western world,” writes historian R. Mauny (1954: 209). Because of the empire’s reliance on mining, the numulu, that is blacksmiths, and their societies, whose practices are necessary to build lutes in addition to other instruments found in the region, continued to grow in power during this period.

One marked characteristic of the Fulbe is cattle-herding, rendering them the traditional providers of cattle in the wider Mandé region and a nomadic group, traditionally. As a result, there are many Fulbe centers across the region. Significant among these is Takrur, an eleventh-century Sudanic state in the Senegal River valley, a section of the region along the boundary between present-day Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania. Takrur emerged during the decline of the Wagadu empire, taking over much of its Western territories and its base for trans-Saharan trade. Takrur waned and was eventually overcome by the Mandé empire in the thirteenth century. When the Mandé empire declined in the fifteenth century, the Jolof empire took over much of Takrur’s previous territory, save Futa Toro, established by Kooly Tengela Ba in the sixteenth century.

Another important Fulbe dwelling is Futa Jalon, “a place of high rocky escarpments, vast grassy plateaux, plunging waterfalls, and dense forests,” as described by art historian Frederick Lamp, in present-day central Guinea that is a common origin of several Mandé ethnic groups, even though it was ruled by Jalonke kings of Mandé origin after the fall of the Mandé empire (1996: 19). Since the twelfth century, and perhaps even a little earlier, there have also been Fulbe populations in Fulado, in the present-day Senegambian region of eastern Gambia and upper Casamance. Finally, the Fulbe have also settled in Massina, located on the inland delta of the Niger River, since the fourteenth century. Whatever relative dominance the Fulbe have cultivated in these regions over time has been established, in part, through five jihads: from Futa Jalon around 1700, Futa Toro in the late eighteenth century, Sokoto (present-day Northern Nigeria) twice in the early nineteenth century, and Futa Jalon again in 1852, the latter of which was led by Tukulor (an ethnic group closely related to the Fulbe) leader al Hadj Omar Tall. In 1867, Fulbe chief Alpha Molo overcame the Mandinka empire Kabu in the southern Senegambian region, establishing the Fuladu kingdom, which is considered the last to be established in the region before the rise of European colonialism (DjeDje 2008: 51).

According to linguist D.W. Arnott, “most professional musicians associated with the FulBe seem to be descendants of non-FulBe who have in many areas lived for centuries in symbiosis with them” (Arnott 2001). These musicians are divided into three groups: maabu’be (sing. maabo), who also practice weaving; wammbaa’be (sing. bammbaa’do) and awlu’be (sing. gawlo). The wammbaa’be have been associated with the Fulbe for the longest, while the others, Arnott writes, are of Soninke, Mandinka or Wolof origin. The wammbaa’be and maabu’be are the most closely associated with chieftaincy and also the ones who typically play the hoddu, performing praises, genealogies and epics.

An especially common piece performed on the hoddu is Taara, dedicated to al Hajj Umar Tal and likely written by his own musician, Mustafa Jali Musa Diabate (note that the name indicates a Mandinka lineage). As the result of his jihad, Tal conquered much of the Senegalese and Malian sahel in the nineteenth century. Because of the expanse he conquered and the itinerant identity of Fulbe and Tukulor people generally speaking, the piece is often used to praise travelers. The piece also often devolves into Maki, a related composition dedicated to Tal’s second son (Charry 2000: 154). Although playing techniques are as manifold as are the kinds of lutes found in this region, hoddu, as with other relatively analogous Mandé lutes, are plucked with the fingers, as their names suggest, although sometimes some kind of nail extension worn as a ring around the index finger may also be used. (Althea SullyCole, 2022)


Arnott, D. W. 2001. “FulBe Music.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol 9, 2nd ed., edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan: 23-25.

Charry, Eric. 2000. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

DjeDje, Jacqueline. 2008. “An Affirmation of Identity: Fulbe Fiddling in Senegambia” In Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa, and Dagbamba Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 43-102.

Lamp, Frederick. 1996. Art of the Baga. New York: Museum of African Art.

Mauny, R. A. 1954. “The Question of Ghana.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 24, no. 3: 200-13.

Hoddu (Xalam), Wood, skin, Fulbe

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