In a time before radio or even gramophones, songs were shared between Aboriginal groups at large social gatherings. Some songs were so popular they spread enormous distances.
One such song known as Wanji-wanji has travelled some thousands of kilometres. Incredibly, the lyrics have remained unchanged over this distance and the past 150 years it has been sung.
The song has been passed between dozens of language groups who sang the lyrics and the rhythm identically, but with varying melodies and under the guise of different names.
There are recordings of Wanji-wanji from Esperance on the south coast of Australia, to Port Augusta, throughout central Australia and the Pilbara, as far north as Broome, and as far east as Wilcannia.
The earliest written record of Wanji-wanji was made in 1913 at Eucla by ethnographer Daisy Bates who wrote that Tharnduriri, a 70 year old Aboriginal man, recalled it from his childhood at Uluru in the 1850s.
Where did Wanji-wanji come from? Language can provide some clues, but even in 1913, the singers at Eucla were unable to tell Daisy Bates what the songs meant, as it was said to have come via the Ashburton River some 2000 kilometres away. Of course performing songs you don’t understand the meaning of has a long tradition. Just think of the number of Australian children who have learnt Frère Jacques.
Unlike traded objects, songs could travel in multiple directions at once as different groups learnt them and passed them on. Wanji-wanji may have radiated out in many directions rather than taken a single route.
Aboriginal songs were often shared at gatherings known as “corroborees”. Entertainment corroborees once played an important role in extending social networks, especially important in the arid regions of Australia. They can be likened to the pop songs of the era.
It is easy to imagine how they could spread quickly – popular with the younger generations and freed from the restrictions of sacred songs, they could be performed anywhere and by anyone with talent. In contrast, sacred land-based songs are about Dreamings and links to country, and there are strict protocols determining who can sing them.
The advent of pastoral stations across Australia in the 19th century provided a new setting for transmitting songs, possibly taking them further than they had ever travelled before.
An Indigenous renaissance
Across Australia, there is an inspiring renaissance of traditional Aboriginal music underway, especially as old recordings are being rediscovered in the archives. New songs are now being (re)composed in these uniquely Indigenous styles.
This is an extract of the the original article first published on The Conversation as ‘Aboriginal Australia’s smash hit that went viral’.
It was authored by Myfany Turpin Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney, Brenda L Croft Australian National University, Clint Bracknell Associate Professor, Edith Cowan University and Felicity Meakins, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland.