The xalam is commonly played in Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Niger, Northern Nigeria, Northern Ghana, Burkina Faso and Western Sahara; it is also known in other languages as bappe, diassare, hoddu (Pulaar), koliko (Gurunsi), komsa, kontigi (Hausa), koni, konting (Mandinka), molo (Songhay/Zarma), ndere, ngoni (Bambara), and tidinit (Hassaniyya Arabic).
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").
In most Wolof-speaking parts of Senegal, the xalam has three principal tunings, all of which involve tuning the two main strings a perfect fourth apart. In the first tuning (ci suuf or low), the main strings are tuned 1 and 4 (1 being the fundamental of a major scale), with three supplementary strings being tuned an octave higher to 1´, 2´, and 3´. The second tuning (ci kow or high) uses the same string intervals but the fundamental is placed a minor second above the higher melody string, meaning that the open main strings now play the role of 3 and 6, with the supplementary strings acting as 3´ and 4#, the highest supplementary string usually being ignored. In the third tuning (ardin), the fundamental is a minor third above the lowest main string and the main strings are tuned 6 and 2, with supplementary strings tuned to 5 and 1´. The third supplementary string is either ignored or is tuned to 6 or 2´. If playing in an ensemble, the ardin xalam's main strings are tuned a minor third below the cu suuf xalam, and the ci kow xalam is tuned a major third above the ci suuf xalam to ensure that the fundamentals of each xalam coincide. (Thus, if the ci suuf xalam's lowest note were C, the ardin’s lowest note would be a low A and the ci kow xalam’s lowest note would be E.)
Important past and present Senegalese xalam masters include Sàmba Jabare Sàmb, Ama Njaay Sàmb, Abdulaay Naar Sàmb (all from the Jolof), Abdulaay Soose (from the Saalum), and Bokunta Njaay (from the Bawol). The best known Malian ngoni players are Banzumana Sissoko, Bassekou Kouyate, Mama Sissoko, Moriba Koita, Sayan Sissoko, and Fuseini Kouyate.