To Russia, with love

The Dustyesky comrades. Photo:: Lyn McCarthy/supplied.

The Sentinel explores the cultural phenomenon of 28 hairy Australian blokes singing traditional Russian songs at the Sydney Opera House. By Richie Black.

“We’re not taking the piss, the way we sing the songs, we sing them with huge respect and love,” says Mark Swivel. 

He’s talking about a choir that he MCs. They are 28 proudly “hairy middle-aged men” from Mullumbimby – and they’ll be performing at the Opera House next Friday and Saturday, the 21st and 22nd of May.

If this hasn’t already struck you as an unlikely story of rock n’ roll success – then please note, comrades, their unique angle is that their setlist is derived exclusively from traditional Russian songs. 

The group’s name is Dustyesky and they indeed originate from the subtropical hamlet of Mullumbimby, on the NSW far north coast. 

A long way, it might seem, both spiritually and literally, from the Motherland – and yet they are, to their immense credit, not only impressively hirsute but the leading genuine fake Russian choir in the southern hemisphere

прошу прощения?

Sure, a degree of serendipity is involved in all of this. As explained in the ABC-TV’s Australian Story, it also seems a degree of vodka (naturally) may have been involved, at least in its genesis. 

But then Doestoevsky himself once said: “Nature doesn’t ask your permission … you’re obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well.”

Something Mark is on board with.

“During the period in which we’ve been exploring our thing, the reputation of Russia has been mixed in the world,” Mark says (we suspect he’s understating it).

“And a lot of Russians have felt that the prestige of Russian culture and again to state the obvious … the fierce pride that Russians have in their culture and its depth and vast history is so real. Whether you come from a white Russian family, you’re an old Stalinist family, whether you’re a new Putinista family – this pride in being Russian is just vivid and visceral.

“So the weirdness of Dustyesky is that we’ve happened at this moment where a sense of pride is damaged and we’ve directly sung into that wound and people have been surprised and delighted by what we do.”

The genuine delight of Russians has been palpable – in a way that the lads weren’t entirely confident, at the beginning, it would be.

“Put it this way, when we did our first article for the Russian press [for the newspaper Unification],” says Mark, “I did all the sort of banter that I include in the show – and is part of our personality – and I wondered whether they’d take offence. We live in an age where cultural appropriation is rightly on the nose.”

“I was anxious that we might be seen as taking the piss. And I said, ‘Do you get the humour?’ to Vladimir Kouzmin, the editor, and ‘Do you like it?’ and he said: ‘Of course!’”

The key is the aforementioned respect and love they apply to the songs; in doing so, differentiating them from, say, Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Borat’, whose relationship with Kazakhstan has been a little hairy (and not in a good way). 

“Cohen, for all his success, and some people would say genius, is taking the piss. We’re not. You go so far as to say, in contemporary cliche, Borat is punching down. If anything we’re punching up.”

And so – swinging their punches with gusto – they’ve sung at festivals in Melbourne and Sydney, plus Adelaide’s Womadelaide Festival. 

Their reputation went international. Then they got booked to sing at a little gig in the Red Square for the Immortal Regiment at the Moscow Victory Day Parade in front of Putin, last year.

Covid, unfortunately, threw a hammer and sickle into the works.

Маллумбимби приветствует Владимира

An open invitation for the most bionic man this side of Schwarzenegger, Vladimir, remains, to come to Australia to “dance and sing”, says Mark. “And to stand in the river and go fishing.” Shirtless, presumably? “Of course, that’s his preferred M.O.”

Choice of song? “I guess ‘The Sacred War’ – a powerful antifascist song written during the Second World War, would probably be the pick. I’d like to think he’d get, then pretend to ignore the very direct meaning, which is the fight against fascism continues.” 

I suspect the reaction that might be a little, um, cold – if not warlike. This is a guy so macho his nipples are classified as an assault weapon.

“If we wanted to be charming,” Mark says, grudgingly, “we would sing ‘Monotonously Rings The Little Bell’, which is the heartbreaking tale of the death of a coachman who is longing for his home – after his labours in the snow. Beautiful and tender. He might cry.”  

The songs they sing – ranging from folk songs and popular songs to Red Army songs and orthodox hymns – are actually chosen by musical director Andrew Swain. 

“Andrew has great taste, a great ear – he does the arranging,” says Mark. “And without him, we would be nothing, really. There’s an element of the random – what appeals to us, there’s an element of what our capacity can manage. And a couple of songs Russians have suggested.

“You’ve got to remember, we rehearse one night a week. And everyone has busy lives and families. If we were full time, we could come up with a vast repertoire. But getting 28 middle-aged men to learn even, I think we’ve got 17 or 18 songs – it’s pretty intense!” 

The choir pictured making a passionate entreaty for Putin to hang out – and buy the next round. Photo: supplied.

Their commitment, Mark explains, is to some extent a practical matter. 

“As much as we love our families – rehearsal and performance times offer a much needed opportunity to escape the rigours of family life. So Tuesday night is a great excuse to get out of the house and go for a beer. And, you know, we love going to festivals. Most people bring their families whenever we’re travelling. And it’d be no exception in Sydney. It’s all fun.”

At this mention of family, I make a mental note to drop the question I was going to ask about what sort of groupies they encounter. Nevertheless, fun seems to be seems to be the crux of the matter – a collective undertaking that’s also partly cathartic. 

“I’m the one that gets to jump out in front and harangue the audience and have a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a lot cheaper than a therapist.”

Певцы мира – объединяйтесь!

The story – and Mark’s self-deprecation – should provide inspiration for other budding vocalists, which is to say everyone (in particular, the proletariat).  

“People are encouraged to think they can’t sing,” he says. “Just as most people are encouraged to think that you can’t speak in public. It’s a form of oppression, in all seriousness. It’s a form of repressing people’s natural desire and instinct to celebrate life. And if that sounds a bit earnest, then so what? I mean it!”

Earnestness is always good for a revolution. He’s proposing one himself – aside from Dustyesky, he is also focussed on setting up a political group to run for Byron Shire Council based on what he calls “a classic community-based independent platform”.

The region has obviously been in the news of late – notably due to the ludicrously exorbitant cost of housing. It points to the kind of disparity between rich and poor that has inspired more than a few Russian anthems.

“The glitterati distort the picture. Most people in Byron are not well well off,” he says. “We want to set aside land for not just affordable housing but community land trusts. The Northern Rivers is a total food bowl. People just look at it as a place to buy an expensive house near the beach. As soon as you get away from hot spots in Byron, it’s not so well off at all.”

As for the choir, “We’d love to keep it going for quite a while. It’s not our reason for being. We’d love to go to Russia when the world is ready for that to happen. In the meantime, we can travel around Australia and do some fantastic gigs … wherever people want to see 28 hairy men and have the single objective of enjoying themselves. If the audience enjoys themselves, well that’s a bonus!”

Dustyesky will be singing songs of pain and despair to fill your hearts with love and joy at the Sydney Opera House at 7.30pm Friday, 21 May and Saturday, 22 May, 2021. Tickets ($65–$85 plus booking fees) are available at https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/classical-music/2021/dustyesky.html.

Richie Black is the deputy editor of the Sydney Sentinel.