Pantha were a progressive band from the mid-70s – formed in Melbourne but later moving to Sydney as their workload increased – who were at odds with the dominant pub-rock sound.
Theirs was a rhythmic mixture of funk, Latin and African beats, with extended exuberant pieces like “Doway do Doway Do”, “El Com Quido”, C’Mon C’Mon Let’s Dance” and “Buried Alive” full of intertwining instruments, chants and percussive effects.
As favourites at music festivals, Pantha sang about community love and peace, and a quest for the spiritual path.
“We were trying to find an Australian voice,” says Roger Pell who wrote the songs, played guitar and handled their business affairs with manager Graeme McKee.
“We were an alternate band in many respects as far as the pop scene was concerned.
“Groups like Matchbox and Spectrum had distinctive voices too, so that was part of the game at that time.”
Recalls their sound man, Drac’ Dracoulis, “They were pretty unique, they had a huge following and crowds loved them.
“They could fill up rooms. On a typical Saturday, we’d do four shows.
“We’d start at Hey Hey It’s Saturday in the morning, do an afternoon set at the Matthew Flinders Hotel, early evening at a club and finish up late night at the Hard Rock Café.”
Dracoulis met Pell while working at jazz guitarist Bruce Clarke’s recording studio in St. Kilda.
He’d go down to Pantha gigs and eventually asked if he could do sound, working alongside their main crew tech Garry ‘Harry’ Parsons.
He had to work for free for three months to prove himself, existing on his $12-a-week dole cheque.
As the ARCA live tape shows, Dracoulis became one of the best in the business.
The sturdy sound he gave Pantha uplifted their cross-pollinated music, with a classy Nova B16 mixing console and making do with a small PA.
“I could get it pretty loud in the small rooms. For the larger rooms I learned early on that if you start soft, people were more likely to come forward onto the dancefloor.
“Once they were on the danceloor you pumped it up because they were soaking up more.”
Many funk and psychedelic musicians said at that time, “May the music set you free.”
Pell agrees, “There was a sense of adventure and pioneering, being progressive was very interesting.
“We were pretty young in the head, none of us had really travelled.
“We didn’t go to university – I myself was dyslectic (difficulty with reading or spelling) – so we just got a band together and went around Australia.”
For most Pantha members, South America was musically their spiritual home.
They always meant to tour there, but somehow never did in their eight years together.
Pell, whose mother played in a classical quartet, taught himself piano and guitar at a young age.
After a hairdresser apprenticeship, Pell but joined jazzy brass-rock eight-piece Kush.
He hung out with older musicians who had gone to conservatoriums, and learned from them.
“One was courage. “A lot of people told me, ‘You’ll never make a dollar out of playing music’.
“But if you’re not about chasing the dollar, you can achieve a lot of other things.”
As a guitarist he was drawn towards South American styles as the bossa nova, and learned from American jazz players as Charlie Byrd who had travelled to South America and cut records there with local players.
An interesting aspect of many Pantha song titles were that they were in a made-up language to fit in with the song’s rhythms.
“Doway do Doway Do”, one of their best known songs, was one, derived from a chord sequence.
“Nigger Nah”, with an interesting rhythmic arrangement, was another.
Pell explains: “Bands form their own language, you talk to each other in public and no one else would understand.
“Pantha were an incredibly close band, aside from being a creative one.”
The band rented a seven-bedroom guest house in Prahran where they also rehearsed.
Dracoulis’ bedroom stored the console, and the bedroom opposite was the rehearsal space.
Dracoulis: “Pantha were focussed as musicians, they were all about their art and how good they could get, and spent a lot of time practising.”
Pell: “When you live and rehearse in the same house, you get very close, more so on the road.
“We paid ourselves $60 a week and lived very simply on the road, but it was never a problem for us because we were on an adventure.”
“Murrumbidgee”, about the beauty of Australia, derived from the rhythm of the river after meditating next to it during a Wagga stop.
It included phrases which could have been any of the 200 to 300 First Nations dialects. It was in fact entirely made up to fit in with the rhythms.
“Make Most What Got Today”, “Happiness” and “Melt” on the ARCA tape – Pantha’s sole album on Wizard Records has “Spiritual Sky” – reflected the spirituality within the band.
“We had a Scientologist, a Krishna, a Christian and an atheist. Our discussions were diverse but never aggressive.
“We knew how important each others’ beliefs were and for me, being the atheist, it was to listen to all points of view to get the ‘big picture’.”
Among the many international tours that Pantha opened for were some of their inspirations as Santana, Brazil-born US-based guitarist Jose Feliciano and British Afro-rock band Osibisa.
Pell recalls a conversation with Santana about practice techniques: rather than play scales, Carlos revealed he played along to records by female singers as Dionne Warwick.
Feliciano, who used them as his backing band, kept them on their toes.
If he heard a song on the radio that morning, he’d want to play it at that night’s show, even though they hadn’t rehearsed it!
The Sydney Showground show on the ARCA tape was opening for the Doobie Brothers, before an estimated 15,000.
Pantha did the entire national tour with them, which boosted their following.
Pell: “We got on really well with them, they’d come to our club shows and play with us.
“At the Showgrounds show, at the end of the tour, they got us up onstage with them for a song.”
The Doobies’ front-of-house Gray Ingram took Dracoulis and Parsons under his wing.
Dracoulis who gave him his prized tooth earring: “I learned so much from Gray, and he was very generous with the sound he gave us.”
The band had moved to Sydney where there was more work.
In mid-1977, Dracoulis left Pantha tired of working for $60 a week, moving on to manager Michael Chugg’s acts Marcia Hines and Richard Clapton and then live sounds production company Jands.
The band ended abruptly six months later after eight years (“we ran out of juice”), a decision hastened by a business kerfuffle during which the tapes of their (never released) second album were confiscated/ stolen.
Paul Curtis went solo, returned to New Zealand where he was a music teacher, and was the only member who visited South America.
Pell became a tutor and composer, with a series of Macrocosmos for Guitar manuals covers finger style, plectrum and bass guitar, with the latest for guitar & alto sax.
Always good with his hands, he is also a sculptor and personally built his house on the Mornington Peninsula outside Melbourne
To get a better understanding of the science of imagination and the creative process, he went to Arizona State University in the USA to learn about Creative Brain Functioning.
He also studied classical guitar in Frankfurt, Germany and in Seattle, USA; and studied tabla and rhythmic singing at the International Academy of Indian Music in Delhi, India.
“The great thing about creating and playing music is it’s an abstraction, it’s not reality.
“It’s unconditional freedom and you can go where ever you want.”