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Digging Deeper: An interview with 'Pressure Makes Diamonds' label founder Gary Johnson

For this next instalment of Digging Deeper we're back with the bossman of Pressure Makes Diamonds (PMD), Gary Johnson. Before reading on we thoroughly recommend checking the first feature we did on PMD’s first release - Azwon. For PMD002, Gary has proved that lightening does indeed strike twice as this is another absolutely essential reissue. It’s by the artist Babalu And His Head Hunters and it’s not a record that anyone at Mr Bongo had heard before, so we felt it was deserving of a deep dig into it’s origins. As an unexpected bonus we also got an introduction to Charkes, Babalu’s daughter.

Gary has unearthed another beauty here - we’ll let him tell the story...

How did you discover the original record?

It was whilst on a holiday come record buying trip to Sweden, back in 2016 that I first stumbled across this 7". I was looking through a box of 45's in Bromma Records,  a well known record store just outside Stockholm, in a town called Abrahamsberg. Now with a band name "Babalu & His Headhunters" and a track entitled "Calypso Funk" you're just not going to pass it by are you? I put it on the in store deck to listen to the Calypso Funk side first, it wasn't a funk track, but a great Calypso cut. Flipping it over to listen to the "Bahamas Gone Independent" side and straight away realised the labels had been reversed and this was definitely the funk side. For me it was just one of those moments when you know straight away that you've stumbled upon something special and this is what looking for records is all about. So with a big smile on my face and with a bunch of other records under my arm I went up to the till to settle up and I left a very happy man. Sadly the shop has closed now, but they still trade online and have amazing records, so it's well worth checking them out if you're unfamiliar with Bromma Records.

What made you want to reissue it?

On returning home I would often have Babalu packed in my bag, in the hope I would get the opportunity to play it at various Dj gigs  - radio shows and mixes we done for various people. When the opportunity arose it would always go down well and quite often someone would come up to find out more info about it. Of course I would give everyone and anyone all the info they wanted in the hope they could find a copy for themselves. Sadly (and like so many other records) it's on a small independent label with very small quantities ever being pressed making it hard to find. I did however manage to find one spare copy that sold to a Japanese collector within an hour of putting it online. This is when I decided and after speaking with a couple of good friends I would try and find Babalu or someone who I could approach with the intent of reissuing it. After all music like this needs to be heard and played everywhere, it's just too good to be owned by a handful of people.

How did you track down the rights holders?

The search began in the hope of finding someone to approach about the possibility of a reissue, and for quite sometime nothing turned up. Then I found a link on a site where a girl in America had been speaking to Bromma Records in Sweden about a record they had for sale on their site by Babalu And His Headhunters. She really wanted to buy the record and explained to them that Babalu was actually her father and that he'd sadly passed away recently. Bromma Records told her the record had been sold (Yes it had to me). She then asked do you know who bought it? Bromma said sorry, no we don't - and that was the end of the conversation between them. Very luckily for me, the girl had left her name on the site link so I searched and managed to find her work email address and then contact was made. I explained that I was the person who had bought her fathers record from Bromma and that it was one of my favourite records. Knowing just how much the record meant to her and me being quite reluctant to hand my copy over, I offered to get a carbon copy made with replica labels and send it over to her in Miami. It was the least I could do and she was so happy when it finally arrived. 

I then explained that I had just started a new record label and asked if she would be interested in supporting a re-release of her Fathers record and that I'd love to be given the opportunity to do so. Her reply to that was. Are you kidding? I'd love for my dad's record to be re-released. She was so pleased and agreed to the idea straight away. In all honesty, this release was supposed to be the first on the PMD label, but we had some mastering issues to contend with. Anyway we got there in the end and I'm so happy to be able to release PMD 02 a replica 7" of Babalu And His Headunters  -  Bahamas Gone Independent / Calypso Funk.

Did Babalu release any other records during his career?

As far as I know he only had two other 7"s (years are both unknown). They are:

1 - You Sweeten Me / The Brush (Nassau Rec) 

2 - Mr. Pindling / Head Hunters Rock (Bamboo rec)

How have people responded to the release so far?

Its had a fantastic response. The first pressing has sold out before it has even seen release!

What can we expect next for PMD?

I'm looking at trying to do another 70's 7" release from Trinidad and another 7" from South Africa. But very early days yet. 


A few questions with Babalu’s daughter, Charkes


What can you tell us about Babalu’s career as a musician / performer?

Babalu started as a dancer.  Taught by Bahamian dance pioneers, Paul Meeres and David Camp, Babalu learned fire dancing and acrobatics. His act was completed with a female dancer that went by the moniker, “Rosie”.  According to Babalu, they frequented many local nightclubs, including the infamous “The Cat & Fiddle”.  Wanting to confirm my father’s memories, I did a little research and found that “The Cat and Fiddle” was a hot spot in Nassau (in the 50s and 60s), owned by musician Freddie Munnings, Sr. (deceased). The Cat & Fiddle had the honour of hosting countless stars, including, Nat King Cole, Harry Belefonte and Count Bassie.  

During this time, Babalu also got his first lessons in drumming.  Taught by Raymond Hanna (the original Babalu), he learned to play bongo drums and became Rosie’s drummer. Unbeknownst to Babalu, he encountered the pioneer in Limbo Dancing and Junkanoo, Richard “Sweet Richard” Dean. Sweet Richard took Babalu along with him to perform in the United States—Miami, Beach. According to Babalu, he and Sweet Richard would often play at “Place Pigalle”, a burlesque nightclub located on Collins Avenue (Miami Beach). Impressed again, I found out Place Pigalle hosted the “Who’s Who” of entertainment in the 50s—Sammy Davis, Jr., “The Impressions”, James Brown, and Flip Wilson. 

Place Pigalle also hosted various international acts, but was lacking where Calypso music was concerned. This prompted Babalu to form his own band. Obviously interested in helping him, Sweet Richard gave my father the stage name, “Babalu”. He’d actually stolen it from one of my father’s early mentors, Raymond Hanna. And from there, Babaul and His Head Hunters was formed. Babalu eventually settled in Miami, FL, where he opened a nightclub, “Babalu’s Banana Boat”, and performed regularly.

Did you get to see your Father performing?

My fondest memories of my father, “Babalu”, were his performances in his nightclub, “The Banana Boat”. I was always taken away by and drawn to him as a musician. Before I’d step foot into the Banana Boat, I would hear my father’s voice coupled with the soulful cadence of a snare drum—played by him. And once I was inside, I’d see couples dancing effortlessly to various calypso cuts he was covering. You could feel the soul of the music. Not only through those dancing, but also through Babalu—who I can see at this very moment—eyes closed, drumsticks in hand, married to every lyric he sang.

What do you think about the renewed interest in your father’s music and it being reissued?

I am thrilled thrice- one because of the love you all have for music. This re-release is a labor of love. Two- because the world gets a chance to know my father...again...the way he would want to be known—through his music. And third- because my daddy would be beside himself. Having such a large family interrupted his music career. So to have another shot at it is truly a blessing. If he were alive, he’d shake your hand, offer you a drink and engage in the most colorful conversation about his music and the heritage you all share with him—England.  

Many thanks to Gary and Charkes for taking the time to answer our questions.

You can buy the record from us here.