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One simply cannot discuss the cultural and national identity of music without examining the society it was created, and the contexts it is interpreted. Using both Yothu Yindi and the Gorunji Singers’ performance of Wanji Wanji, I will be discussing society, context, and its effect on the cultural and national identity in music. Looking specifically at “Treaty” I analyzed the second rendition, or remix, as well as Wanji Wanji and how it expanded both in popularity and geographically. In order to prove the connection between societal context and the identity of music I will be looking at numerous articles written in different time periods with different authors as well as the songs including their lyrics, popularity, and meaning. Specific societal contexts shape the representations of cultural identity in music through their influence on creating the music as well as how society uses the music when it is released.

In today’s age, it is easier than ever to discover, share, and listen to music from anywhere in the world. The tools we have access to allow us to music written at different times, by different people, and in different places at the simple click of a button. This however was far from the case 150 years ago, when a song was created that impressively was still able to grow and spread with incredible speed and distance while maintaining originality. This song is Wanji Wanji, a song thought to have been from the Ashburton River, and has now traveled and spread thousands of kilometers throughout Australia. The earliest recording of the song was in 1913, but as many listen today, it is performed by Gurindji singers, however, it is important to understand that they are not the original creators but did help the song to be spread and be heard, along with the thousands of other people and artists who share the song. The purpose of using the Gurindji performance of the song focuses less on the Gurundji people and more on the actual song, and the many people who have been a part of keeping it alive today.

One of the most important aspects of Wanji Wanji is the fact that is made up of multiple languages, making it pan-linguistic, which is a “hallmark of shared experiences and social connections”. These languages all come together to make up the 30-odd total verses of the song, while only about 2-3 are typically performed. Within these verses, there are words known from the Wati languages, wording and grammar taken from the Gurinji, and other related languages. Given that aboriginal songs were typically shared at gatherings, which played an important role in extending social networks, it can easily be deducted that this song was of extreme importance and relevance among Aboriginals from its time of creation to even now. In order to travel thousands of kilometers, it must be shared, not only locally, but with people outside of the local mob. It is alleged that much of what contributed to the expansion of this song was the increase of pastoral stations, which provided a consistent inflow and outflow of new people to share and celebrate with. Given these gatherings typically included music, Wanji Wanji soon became a hit and was shared through different backgrounds, cultures, and even languages. When information is passed through long distances across multiple cultures and even across different languages, it is almost inevitable for the original song or message to be distorted in some or even many ways. The incredible aspect of this song is that the lyrics have remained unchanged and the lyrics and rhythm are reproduced identically to the original.

Wanji Wanji and its travel through time and distance while maintaining originality speak directly to the cultural identity of music, which has been shaped by the societal contexts it was shared. Barwick speaks on this when she states that “song is one of the primary means by which aboriginal Australians, of whatever background, express and maintain their identity and culture”. This speaks straight to Wanji Wanji in terms of the cultural importance of music, and how no matter what background, it is still significant, shared, and represents a culture. When analyzing the societal context of Wanji Wanji, you have to consider over 150 years of society through which it traveled through. Most music begins with the local mob, where you share the music simply with the people around you in your local culture. This song expanded from the local mob to the aboriginal audience where it was used as entertainment and for commerce. The next audience size, which was rarely breached at that time with that type of music was the nation-state, where the music reaches a level of cultural survival, and while little is understood, can still in many ways communicate aboriginal perspectives and mean a lot to many different cultures. While the underlying cultural identity stayed the same, much similar to the lyrics and rhythm, of simply bringing people together and celebrating, it can mean something a little different for each person it was passed along to. Whether it was a mother teaching a daughter, where the daughter sees the song as a bonding moment, or a tradesman traveling to the next pastoral station, where he met an aboriginal man of another culture and the two bonded over the sharing of the song. Wanji played a very important role in depicting where music stood in the hierarchy of culture, and it can be seen through the passage and preserved originality of the song through many different contexts that the cultural identity of music stayed the same, an art to bring people together.

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Another song that took the nation by storm, however on its second release, was “Treaty”, by the multicultural band Yothu Yindi. The song was released in 1991, and was highly political in speaking about the need for a treaty between the Aboriginal people of Australia and those who colonized the country, in order to obtain land and the recognition of their rights. When the song was first released in 1991, the message was clear, it was all about the treaty, it also happened to be placed last in the track list on the album. Many things changed for the second release, where the lyrics were adjusted, the track list was rearranged, and many different mixes of the song were released including an acapella version, radio mix, and multiple remixes from Filthy Lucre, Seven Sisters, and VCO buzz. The most popular of all became the Filthy Lucre remix, in which the politicization was stripped away through an adjustment of lyrics as well as a change of direction within the music video. It is incredibly important to understand the different contexts of these two releases only one year apart, in which the representations of cultural and national identity were shifted from a place of change, meaning, and importance, to simply dance.

“The song was released in 1991, at a time when interest in Aboriginal popular music was developing”. Not only was this interest developing, but it was also not far off from the year 1988, “when so much was hoped for in black/white relations”, which was the 200-year anniversary of the founding of the British colony. Many had hoped that on this anniversary, both the colonizers and aboriginals would be able to sign a treaty to recognize land and other rights. When this fell through, many were disappointed, and people like Yothu Yindi took action and created this song in order to continue the push toward the eventual realization of these rights. This song served as a rallying cry, to bring people together to have a treaty signed which would recognize the rights of Aboriginal people on their original land, which had been invaded by British colonizers. Shaped by the society they were in, “Treaty” became a song that represented the feelings of the aboriginal people, music that truly represented the cultural identity at the time.

As some time passed, the song did not gain much traction, and remixes started to emerge that included not only different musical styles but also different uses of lyrics. The Filthy Lucre remix quickly transpired as the most popular remix, which essentially rendered the political lyrics and meaning meaningless and disguised, hidden behind the shouts to “clap your hands and dance!”. These additions to the lyrics clearly show what the intention of the remix was, a song made to be dance music, popular amongst the younger crowd. Much of the English verse was taken out, where “the original is the only version that includes the complete text of the English verses … all other versions, except the live performance in Broome and Sydney, include the first three lines of the first English verse only”. These English sections were what allowed many people to understand the political meaning and force behind the song, and when taken out, so is much of the meaning behind the song. It is incredibly important to consider the context and the motivation behind the song which made it more popular but concealed most of the meaning behind the song. The context of this remix includes the lack of popularity of the song combined with an increase in desire for clout and financial success, a major shift in cultural identity for the music.

This context is what gives the meaning to the song, as well as dictates how it represents the cultural identity of music. When analyzing the specific societal context of the first version of “Treaty”, it becomes obvious that many Aboriginal people were concerned about the realization of their land and human rights. This led them to create a song that served as a rallying cry to bring people together to fight for a cause they believe in, serving as an indication of the strong cultural identity within music. This identity is something that brings people together for something deeper than just listening and dancing, it brings people together to fight a fight that has been apparent for the past 200 years of the aboriginal’s lives where they have not had the same land and human rights as their colonizers. This important identity is repressed within the context of the remixes in 1992, where the lyrics and music are altered in a way to suppress the political outcry of the Aboriginal people. This version shifts the identity of music from something of importance to something that is made to make people dance and make a profit.

Through the performance, growth, and spread of “Wanji Wanji” and the alteration of the smash hit “Treaty”, it is made abundantly clear that societal context has an effect on the cultural identity in music. Through Wanji Wanji and its performance by hundreds of different people and artists, the cultural identity can be seen in two ways. On one end the identity of this music is to bring people together, which it did incredibly well as it was able to survive and spread thousands of kilometers over many years. While at the same time, in each subculture, or sub-context, it can have a different meaning for each person that it is passed along to. Yothu Yindi and their creation of the Treaty can allude to the societal struggle of Aboriginals and their need for a treaty to recognize their land and human rights. This makes the cultural identity abundantly clear, however buried when the remix was released which obscured the important politically driven message behind the song. Without the societal context’s relation to music, there would be little meaning, and therefore little purpose in the creation of the art that ranks extraordinarily high in the importance of all society today.    

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