Dustyesky's Russian folk songs and accent comedy – it shouldn't work, but it does

Joke act it may be, but there’s something weirdly great about a bunch of Byron shire lads singing in Russian at Womadelaide

Womadelaide festival 2018 – in pictures
Womadelaide review: all singing, all dancing festival of joy

Dustyesky perform at Womadelaide.
Cult act Dustyesky perform at Womadelaide 2018. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Hlcarpenter.com
Cult act Dustyesky perform at Womadelaide 2018. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Hlcarpenter.com
Andrew P Street

Last modified on Thu 26 Mar 2020 08.45 EDT

When Dustyesky first took the stage at dusk on Saturday for Womadelaide, my 14-month-old son raced down the hill towards them at breakneck speed, so overwhelmed was he by the sheer magnetism of their lusty masculinity. Or perhaps because he too has a nascent love for Russian folk music, despite not being Russian or speaking a single word of the language.

That sums up the somewhat gimmicky backstory to Duskyesky, which was formed in Mullumbimby four years ago for the Mullum Music festival by beardy men who bonded together through a shared love of vodka and Russian choral music. Since then the now 28-member choir have become regulars on the festival circuit and become a cult act for Russians amazed and delighted that a bunch of blokes from regional New South Wales are performing their music, even if they’re not entirely sold on the accents.

With a backstory like that, it’s amazing a trend-conscious spirits brand hasn’t signed Dustyesky for a series of ads – not least because they also dress in a bibs-n-braces style that simultaneously evokes Soviet Russia and contemporary Fitzroy.

It’s no shock that they’re playing in Adelaide at the moment since their schtick – and schtick it undeniably is, starting with the groan-inducing pun of the name – would work equally well as a Fringe show as it does a Womadelaide set. And, indeed, they were a Melbourne Fringe hit, and the choir also have performed at Falls festival. For a joke, it’s one with remarkable staying power.

And there is a rough beauty to their performance, it should be made clear. The primal power of the unaccompanied, untrained voices of these men shines through as they perform the Russian national anthem, Orchy Chornye, The Red Army is the Strongest and Kalinka. For those not especially across Russian political songs, it’s remarkable how many of the songs are familiar from film and television.

Dustyesky perform at Womadelaide 2018.
‘The primal power of the unaccompanied, untrained voices of these men shines through.’ Photograph: John Hemmings

It’s offset by the choir’s MC, Mark Swivel, performing in character as Comrade Swivelsky, who introduces each song in a faux-Russian accent that would make Yakov Smirnoff blush. Accent comedy is a hard thing to pull off in 2018 and while he thankfully steers clear of any “in Soviet Russia, music folks YOU!”-style jokes, there’s still something slightly jarring about swapping from stirring massed voices celebrating the proletariat to Swivel’s comic patter about “Mullumgrad”.

And yet, somehow, it works.

The crowd sang along, they danced in front of the stage, and rejoiced in the joyful silliness of a bunch of Byron shire dudes singing about the Volga. Swivel plugged the following day’s set and Monday workshop, although he claimed they did not understand why they were having one since “normally workshop for make tractor or ladder”.

Cult act? Definitely. Womad must-see? Indubitably.