A few years ago, Noongar musician Clint Bracknell heard one of the catchiest hooks ever.
He was researching his PhD when he came across the song on the whirring tape of an old recording made in Esperance on the south coast of WA.
It surfaced again in an archival recording made in 1970 in the Goldfields town of Norseman, 200 kilometres north of Esperance.
And then he found it once more, in a written record made in 1913 at a remote settlement on the vast Nullarbor Plain — 900 kilometres away.
That handwritten document, which recorded 30 verses of the song, was made at Eucla by the self-taught anthropologist Daisy Bates.
A sometime “honorary protector of Aborigines” and full-time white saviour, Bates is infamous among Aboriginal people today for propagating the myth of the noble savage, of castes based on blood quantum and racial segregation.
When she wasn’t smoothing the pillow of a race she supposed was dying, Bates did manage to capture the first written evidence of the wanji-wanji — the same song, with stylistic and regional variations, that Clint heard on the tape from Esperance.
Viral on a bush radio network
At Eucla, Bates witnessed an opera-like performance of the entire wanji-wanji ceremony, unfolding in several acts with encores, later describing the ritual in letters and floridly in one of her newspaper columns published in 1915.
“It lasted about a fortnight, and there were three performances daily, at 4am, 2pm, and at about 8pm … Neither those who brought the dance nor those who watched it could interpret the words or the actions,” she wrote somewhat definitively.
One of Bates’ informants at Eucla was a venerable old man, aged in his 70s, whose memory was jogged by the elaborate staging of this durational performance.
The grandfather recalled the wanji-wanji from his youth – spent 2,000 kilometres away in central Australia, literally in the shadow of Uluru.
“Old Thanduriri from the Musgrave and Everard Ranges who was too old to take part in it, suddenly remembered that he had witnessed some of its scenes as a young man,” Bates scribbled in her wildly cursive notes.
The old man’s testimony is evidence that the song was performed at Uluru possibly as far back as the 1840s — before any white man had sighted the monolith at the geographical heart of the continent.
The song detectives
Intrigued, Clint Bracknell started emailing some professional colleagues working in the field — including linguist and music researcher Myfany Turpin, who worked in communities north of Alice Springs — to ask if they’d heard anything about this mysterious travelling song.
For a while, there was radio silence.
A few years later, Myf and linguist Felicity Meakins happened to record the song at Kalkaringi.
This was near the site in 1966 where the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill Station in a dispute over pay and conditions – a stand-off that not only galvanised the land rights movement but which inspired another folk song, From Little Things, Big Things Grow by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody.
Myf remembers hearing it sung in 2015 by the late Ronnie Wavehill, a Gurindji senior traditional owner, knowledge custodian and storyteller, wearing his stockman’s hat pulled down low.
He learnt the corroboree — that is, the unrestricted public song — as an eight-year-old boy when he lived at Inverway Station, 130 kilometres south-west of Kalkaringi.
A year later, while transcribing the song, she realised those words rang a bell with Clint’s earlier email.
“It really was that case of us realising we’d been independently doing this research. And it did take some years before we realised we were actually looking at the same song,” says Myf, an associate professor at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music.
Soon, both Clint and Myf were hooked by the distant echo of this viral hit song and the mystery of how it travelled, and precisely why it became so widely sung – not to mention where it originated and its literal meaning.
As their research unfolded in oral history interviews conducted in the field, they discovered that it was shared across more than half of the continent – with the infectious rhythm and the catchy lyrics almost completely unaltered.
The song was carried — much like a trade good such as ochre or the highly-prized native tobacco, pituri — largely on foot and bartered, in exchange for flints or hardwood spears, or to be gifted as folk songs.
An Aboriginal folk song
As a genre, folk songs are defined as those transmitted orally, generally by an unknown composer, which express a shared or common sense of identity, and which are performed according to the customs of a certain group.
In Indigenous cultures here in Australia, the performance of traditional songs is governed by strict protocol.
Songs can be restricted to certain members of a clan group according to status and gender.
Although it had a cultural context, defining when it could be sung, associated dance moves and a theatrical staging like that Bates encountered at Eucla, the wanji-wanji was sung and performed freely, by men and women alike, wherever it travelled.
In this way, the wanji-wanji has “no boss” – it is unrestricted.
“He’s everybody’s song. No boss, nobody boss for this, not like Slim Dusty — one man singing it,” says Ngarla man Charlie Coppin, who shared his memories of the wanji-wanji in an interview at Port Hedland.
The La Bamba of the bush, the Despacito of the desert
It’s not clear exactly what language the song’s lyrics were composed in. However, it seems to be identifiably from the vast region of the Western Desert, belonging to the family of Indigenous languages known as Pama-Nyungan.
The linguistic origin of the song is just one of the mysteries of the wanji-wanji that Clint and Myf unravel when they co-host the five-part series Song With No Boss, produced for ABC RN’s Awaye! and broadcast throughout Ausmusic Month.
To complicate matters, there are also song languages composed of words, or sounds, that are only ever uttered musically – non-lexical vocables, to use the jargon, like the Beatles’ “ob-la-di, ob-la-da” or Little Richard’s refrain “wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom”.
The wanji-wanji was never completely translated and its literal meaning never fully documented, but perhaps that’s not the point.
Just as a monolingual English speaker might sing along to La Bamba or Despacito, Ça Plane Pour Moi or 99 Luftballons, it didn’t matter to singers of the wanji-wanji what the song was about – it just felt good to sing it.
“Purely looking at it from a pop music analysis perspective, we’ve got this hooky vocal rhythm at the start of these long notes,” says Clint, who is currently a professor of Indigenous languages at the University of Queensland.
“And then after that bit, we’ve got this more staccato, rhythmic thing going on … it’s not a drone, it’s not monotonous. There’s something interesting that’s always piquing your interest with each repetition of that verse.”
The power of music to evoke memory
When they played archival recordings to the more than 100 people they interviewed for the series, from Bidyadanga on the Kimberley coast to Port Augusta, Clint and Myf discovered that the wanji-wanji sometimes triggered deep emotional responses.
“I’d see the joy and the nostalgia wash over their face as they heard it,” Myf says.
“I get a sense of the power of music to alter how someone feels. And it’s not just thinking about the past, it’s almost like the past does come back through music.”
For me, certain songs trigger memories and non-literal associations in the way that certain high key smells do, an old lover’s cologne, for example – and Myf points out that in some Indigenous languages, the word for smell and melody are the same.
Sometimes there was a tinge of sadness, too, as the elders we spoke to – many of whom have since passed away — sat with their memories.
“That happened quite a bit — usually after those joyful memories, [there was] the reflection and the intellectualising: ‘Why don’t my grandchildren … why have they not had this experience? What’s gone wrong? What can we do to change this?'”
The future of a song
Having documented its trajectory across time and space for Song With No Boss, Both Clint and Myf have strong hopes for the preservation and the future of the wanji-wanji.
“I recall how much the elders I worked with wanted it to be performed, and they all wanted to get together to sing it,” Myf says. “I would probably have tears running down my face when I see a group of young people singing it.
“To have something like that happen would be amazing.”
“I think this song is a window into that sort of possibility. We can build all the cultural centres we want. But unless we’ve got things like this … then maybe things like those cultural centres will ring empty and hollow.
“For me, it’s about filling spaces outside, inside – everywhere — with that joy and feeling of connection.”
Hear Song With No Boss on ABC RN’s Indigenous arts and culture podcast Awaye! via the ABC listen app, throughout Ausmusic month.