Lala (sistrum)

Probably Burkinabe

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 681

Sistrums are found across West Africa. The instrument is especially prevalent among the Fulbe people, who call it the lala, although it is also found in the music-making traditions of the Susu in Guinea and Dogon in Mali, who refer to it as the wasakumba and kebele, respectively, among other ethnic groups. In each of these cases, the instrument is used to accompany boys and girls during the retreat period after circumcision and excision, respectively.

This sistrum is made from a V-shaped branch, one side of which is decorated with hide rings and serves as a handle. On the other side of the branch, gourd or possibly coconut shell disks have been loosely mounted. A small piece of chord tied to the end keeps the disks from slipping off of the sistrum. Finally, a bird finial has been carved into the intersection of the instrument’s two arms. Shaking the stick sets the sistrum’s disks in motion, producing a loud, percussive sound. Apart from the sculptural element, the construction of these kinds of instruments do not ostensibly require the skills of blacksmiths and therefore may predate the beginnings of metalworking in West Africa in the mid-first millennium B.C.E.

Sculptural elements at the intersection of two arms of a Mandé sistrum are common and typically figure symbols closely associated with the culture and/or ethnic group with which the instrument is affiliated. Birds are significant symbols among several ethnic groups, figuring in the religious traditions of the Baga people and in some recitations of the Malinke origin story of the bala, a wooden xylophone, although birds are perhaps most closely associated with Wasulu music-making practices compared to other West African ethnic groups. Wasulu singers and musicians are frequently referred to as kònò (pl. konow), which means bird and is also used to describe non-hereditary singers. This is significant because, as Lucy Durán explains, “[t]he bird is a symbol of freedom, wisdom and beauty of voice in Mande. The konow are musicians by choice and natural ability, with a ‘bird's eye’ view of society, allowing them to comment on social issues” (ibid: 102). (Althea SullyCole, 2022)


Durán, Lucy. 1995. “Birds of Wasulu: Freedom of expression and expressions of freedom in the popular music of Southern Mali.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 4, no. 1: 101-34.

Lala (sistrum), Wood, gourd, hide, Probably Burkinabe

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