Soundsystems are inextricably intertwined with the history of Caribbean music, first emerging in Jamaica in the early '60s as the key ingredient in high-stakes musical "cutting" contests. Producers, musicians and DJs would form "allstar" teams to create dubplate tracks to play (and toast over) at rambunctious yard parties. The hotter, fresher and better the plates, the bigger the crowd. Competition was furious and the music revolutionary. Soon enough, the concept spread to other Caribbean islands and was most notably taken up in Trinidad, where crews merged into to the all-out Carnival celebrations, resulting in some of the most notorious battles ever and a culture of soundsystem superstars, some of whom have their own radio stations. Soundsystem battles continue throughout the world (a Japanese crew recently won the World Cup), but it's in the Caribbean that it thrives most vibrantly.
Guyana -- though a South American country -- has always been more culturally aligned with the Caribbean islands than with its continental brethren, sharing a similar colonial history that found waves of Africans, East Indians and Chinese imported as slaves and indentured servants. Those forced migrations resulted in a current population that is unique even among the cultural mish-mashes of the area: East Indian, 51 percent; African, 29 percent; mixed, 14 percent; native, 4 percent; European and Chinese, 2 percent. Thus, the Guyanese culture -- though genealogically a predominantly Indian one -- is thoroughly informed by African and Caribbean influences.
With substantial Indian and non-Latin Caribbean populations in the area, it shouldn't be such a surprise that at least one Guyanese soundsystem has emerged here. Natural Mystic Soundsation claims the mantle of "Florida's #1 Guyanese Soundsystem" is as true as it is a default position. The four-man crew has easily established themselves as the hottest soundsystem -- Guyanese or not -- in Central Florida. Battles may not occur in Orlando with the frequency of showdowns in New York or Kingston, but the group has, over its seven-year existence, made itself pre-eminent simply by virtue of the DJs' incredible diversity and what seems like a collective psychic ability to read crowds.
"The crowd doesn't have to say anything," says Professor G.T. (aka Oliver Batson). "We just have to watch them."
And watch them they must. Given the crew's diversity, they draw a diverse audience, so the dancehall tracks that worked the night before -- or the bhangra tracks that worked last Friday -- might not go over with tonight's crowd that's aching to hear soca ... or hip-hop ... or chutney (a singular, percussion-heavy blend of relentlessly uptempo Caribbean rhythms and broken patois-English lyrics sung by Indian singers).
"The audiences are mixed, but it's mostly Caribbean people we play to: Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, we get everybody," says DJ Richie (Richie Ramjit). "You've got to feel out a crowd. If it's a Caribbean crowd, you might want to play more soca or whatever. Our usual crowd is a Guyanese crowd, which loves Indian music, so we'll play Indian music nonstop for those crowds. They always hear hip-hop [in clubs], they always hear soca, and they never get to hear Indian music in a club."
There's an alternating crew behind the CD decks (Natural Mystic left behind the turntables a while back), and DJ Richie and DJ Darin (Darin Ramsaroop) tend to handle the soca, chutney and Indian tracks. Professor G.T. and Indian (Ramjit's brother Robin) veer toward the reggae, dancehall and hip-hop, leaving at least one member to just watch the crowd. The furious blend of beats and styles is held together by the MC omnipresence of G.T., who makes sure to keep the crowd bouncing. It's hardcore, uptempo and a culture-clash party unlike any you've ever witnessed.
A recent gig at the closing party for the South Asian Student Association (SASA) conference held at Hard Rock Live found Natural Mystic's skills put to full effect. Working a crowd of Indian college kids immersed in hip-hop culture ("Back That Ass Up" got nearly the same reaction as Daler Mehndi's "Dardi Rab Rab Kardi"), the crew deftly shifted the focus from bling-bling to the attendees' cultural roots by banging beat-heavy tracks laced with melodies and lyrics from well-known Bollywood and bhangra songs. After all, anyone can make a dreamy, atmospheric piece from sitars and ambient beats. But Natural Mystic slams together Missy Elliott and the theme from the recent film "Kahaa Dil Ne Kahaa" to pack the dancefloor. It's not their parent's Bollywood, and the students responded wildly.
"We get back to our roots," says DJ Darin. "When we go to play an Indian-American crowd that's grown up on hip-hop and American music, and we play Indian music ... they're shocked. But they love it."
The soundsystem's roots do, logically, go back to Guyana. All the members of the Orlando crew are Guyanese (Natural Mystic also spawned sister groups in Boston and New York that claim Jamaican and Barbadan members respectively), with Indian roots. Even G.T. -- whose hulking figure, dark skin and dreadlocks may fool some onlookers -- was raised in a traditional Guyanese/Indian home in Brooklyn by his Indian mother.
"People that don't know me wonder how I know all the words to some of these songs," he says. "But my mom raised me like that, so people might see me as the dread, but they don't expect it when I come out and start singing a verse in a chutney song or a Hindi song."
That sense of constant cultural surprise (and their unstoppable party ethos) comes through clearly on Natural Mystic's "Underground Mix CDs." Now up to the fourth volume, which packs 55 tracks into just over an hour, these discs blitz through all the system's strong points -- chutney, dancehall, hip-hop, Indian music -- displaying a high-velocity mixing style and some interesting stylistic shifting.
"I can confidently say that we can play anything and make it work," says G.T. "We've been doing it long enough to know. I've got Barry Manilow mixed on a reggae beat and it works. If that works, anything can work."