Dustyesky, the very Russian choir made up of not-so-Russian men from Mullumbimby, performed to thousands of people over the weekend at the Adelaide site of the global World Of Music And Dance (WOMAD) festival.
That they stole the show was not surprising to those in the know but, as an unknown quantity to most of the 90,000 people who were estimated to be attending over four days, they were way out of left field.
The reaction tended to be one of curiosity and puzzlement, followed by awe at the vocal power of the songs and then laughter at the group’s MC, comedian Mark Swivel (that’s Comrade Swivelsky to you). The group’s name, a play on Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, was certainly apt in the increasingly dusty environment over a hot weekend in dry Adelaide.
‘The total highlight of the festival,’ were the words of one audience member who rushed up to the group after their workshop. ‘Loved the theatre and the music – great fun,’ said another.
Two people who were very excited to be in the audience were Julie and Mick, parents of Dustyesky member Darren Gallant. Adelaide locals, this was their first time hearing their son sing with the group. ‘Last time would have been when I was age 12 in the school choir,’ confirms Darren, who was amazed at his transition from WOMAD audience member to performer. ‘Who’d have thunk it!’ he says.
Initially formed purely with the aim of performing three songs at the 2014 Mullum Music Festival (because the festival wanted a Russian choir but couldn’t afford a real one) the 28-strong group took on a life of its own when the members didn’t want to stop their Tuesday night pub rehearsals.
At WOMAD, the group performed on three consecutive days, including on the festival’s second-biggest stage to around 3,000 people. Many of these then came along to their workshop on the final day, where ‘The Boss’, choir leader Andrew Swain, managed to get the audience singing in both Russian and two-part harmony, before leading the crowd on a walking rendition of the Song of the Volga Boatmen through the festival site. ‘You know this one as “Yo Ho Heave Ho” from kindergarten,’ is one way Mark Swivel introduces this song.
‘We don’t know what workshop is,’ Swivel had joked in character onstage the day before. ‘You bring your tractor or Lada and maybe we will fix it.’
He also took aim at a review in The Guardian, which described the group as having ‘untrained voices’. Though this might have been the case – for some members – when they first formed four years ago, it is no longer true. They might have day jobs and rehearse in a pub (the Mullum Ex-Services Club) but they do rehearse and it shows. They sing in four-or five-part harmony, their vocal quality was sufficient to stop passers-by of the open-air stages in their tracks, and the combination of the bass section, higher harmonies and the emotion within the music is good enough to send shivers up your spine.
Started as frauds
‘We may have started as frauds but now we’re as good as the Russians,’ says Andrew Swain. Indeed, before WOMADelaide, their most nerve-racking gigs were singing for the Russian ambassador and at the Russian Cultural Centre in Brisbane. They went into these performances not without concern about how their impersonations, faux accents and transliteration-learned Russian lyrics would go down. They were relieved to find themselves enthusiastically received in these gigs as well as after an appearance on Russian TV. Not a day goes by without Russians starting to follow them on social media.
The Guardian review, apart from the slip of the pen when it came to their singing experience, was spot on when it declared Dustyesky both a ‘cult act’ and ‘A Womad must-see’.
They were selected to perform from hundreds of possible groups says WOMADelaide program manager, Annette Tripodi, of her decision to invite Dustyesky.
‘In the tradition of our presenting the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the Spooky Men’s Chorale – both groups of really high performance standard but with a fabulous wit and humour threaded through the shows – I felt confident that Dustyesky would be marvellous in this 2018 program – which they were!’
For my money, I reckon Dustyesky were the second-biggest buzz of the festival. Given that the biggest buzz was reserved for a circus act that involved multiple cranes, zip lines criss-crossing above the crowd, and millions of white feathers, coming second in no way diminishes their success.
As the choir make their way back to their homes in ‘Mullumgrad’, the city of Adelaide and all those who attended Dustyesky’s WOMADelaide performances will be one big step closer to finding their inner Russian.