Album: Pantera (1987) (Private International Album)

Producer: Pete Gavankar

Lyricist: Jose Flores

Singers: Amie, Alan, Angelo

There is a popular saying about the city of Las Vegas – “What happens in Vegas…stays in Vegas!” However, music connoisseurs lucked out with one of the bold, ambitious and, yet, on-the-spur ideas that was born in Vegas but grew out of Vegas to become a global reality in the form of the only Latin album ever composed and recorded by an Indian music composer or artist.


The journey of Pantera started during one of Pancham’s visits to the United States (US) with Asha Bhosle. Pete Gavankar recalls meeting him at a casino in Vegas. An interview published during the release of Pantera mentions the year as 1975. In an interview with Pete in Los Angeles, he recalled it to be around 1978. During that meeting the discussion veered toward music and Pete proposed the “Kuch karte hain” (let’s do something) plan. Pancham was only too glad to work with his friend. They decided to work on something different, something that had never been tried before, something that would go beyond expectations, something worthy of a global partnership. Pete promised the best resource, a generous budget and a willingness to bear the financial risks.


Pete Gavankar and his family had a huge footprint in Hindi cinema. His maternal uncle Mangesh Desai was the most popular and accomplished sound recordist in Hindi cinema world. His childhood friends included Ronu Mukherjee (son of S. Mukherjee, father of Rani Mukherjee) and Bhisham Kohli (nephew of Dev Anand). Before moving to the US, Pete had also assisted in some of Filmstan’s (S. Mukherjee’s production banner) productions, including working on the sound stage for Dil Dekhe Dekho (debut of music composer Usha Khanna). Later in the 1970s, Pete headed to the US for his degree in engineering and eventually settled in Joliet, Illinois.


Pancham, on the other hand, had started the busiest phase of his career as music composer in both Hindi and Bengali. After 1970 his career as a composer had skyrocketed and he had started averaging 15 movie assignments every year. At the start of the 1980s, that number (of assignments) had crossed well over 20 each year. With his trailblazing chartbusters, Pancham had also become very busy with stage shows and film industry events. Pancham had started delegating more responsibilities to his assistants and artists. His domain had started expanding in Bengali puja and movie industry, his assistants had started working as independent composers for some of his close banners and the number of artists on his permanent payroll had grown manifold.


It would have taken a sheer miracle for this international project to happen. And indeed it ended up being a herculean effort on Pete’s part and the miraculously talented Pancham that made this ambitious album happen. During one of Pete’s visit to India in 1980−81, he took 15 tunes from Pancham. A busy Pancham had composed these tunes for Pete within a week.


Back in the US, Pete’s sister Nilu Gavankar made Jose Flores, an upcoming Latino artist and her music teacher, listen to Pancham’s tunes. Jose went ahead and mixed the tunes with some basic Latin and American music. Pete sent these basic recordings to Pancham to listen to. Pancham instantly loved the recording and the style. Even though the recording was not professional, it sounded good enough to excite him about the project.


Pancham finally managed to carve out some time for the Pantera project. And on May 15, 1982, Pancham finally arrived in San Francisco for a 20-day trip of which 10 days were allocated for creating the final tunes, rehearsals and final recording and mixing of the tracks. He brought with him his minimal team of one − the young Deepan Chatterjee.


Pete Gavankar was by then a successful businessman and owner of Rockdale Controls, Inc. in Joliet, Illinois. Rockdale made electronic controls for soft-serve ice cream machines, Mr. Coffee and a “classified” item for NASA’s Gemini project. Pete followed through his promise to Pancham of the best sound facilities and equipment available in the US. His connections ensured easy access to some of the best talents in the US and a very engaged and creative marketing team.


Pete had lined up Patrick Gleeson – master synthesist and one of the biggest names in sound engineering in the world. At that time Patrick Gleeson had won international accolades for his work for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Herbie Hancock’s Sunlight, Crossings, Sextant and Headhunters. Patrick along with his friend John Vieira had their own recording studio in San Francisco named Different Fur (the studio’s name was inspired by the eclectic fashions of his friend and poet Michael McClure).


Different Fur was the recording destination for several mainstream musicians including Neil Young, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Confunkshun, Devo and today still is for the current artists including Brian Eno, Phil Collins, Kronos Quartet, Jonathan Richman and Pablo Cruise.


On their first meeting at the Different Fur studio, Pancham was giddy as a kid in the candy store when he saw and experienced the technology and talent that Patrick Gleeson and his studio had to offer. A simple sound like the buzzing of an insect, created electronically, had the clarity and realism that was a hundred fold magnified than the real natural sound. Patrick became instrumental in synthesizing the sound effects for the title track of Pantera. At Different Fur, Pancham cut the album of Pantera with its seven tracks within an astonishing 10 days.


And perhaps influenced by this experience and working with Patrick Gleeson, Pancham started carving out the role for a sound engineer within his own team – something that had never before been done in Indian music. The young Deepan Chatterjee would bear that role and would become instrumental to the sound design of several of Pancham’s outstanding scores including The Burning Train and Dil Padosi Hai.


The Chief Sound Engineer for Pantera was Stacy Baird. Stacy was a popular music recording engineer and producer in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His engineering clients included Madonna, Stevie Nicks, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips, Los Lobos, The Tubes, and producers T Bone Burnett and Rick Nowels and Todd Rundgren. At Different Fur, he had also worked on such noteworthy projects as Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the soundtrack for Francis Coppola’s Academy-Award-winning Apocalypse Now. Today Stacy Baird resides in Hong Kong and is Executive Director of the US-China Clean Energy Forum Intellectual Property Program.


Pete’s sister Nilu Gavankar was the project coordinator for Pantera. Through her and Pete’s contacts came the other key contributor for this project – Jose Flores, an extremely talented percussionist and conga player. Jose Flores taught and played Latin music and had his own share of popularity in the San Francisco Bay area with his band “Pantera.” Pete Gavankar narrates the first meeting of Pancham with Jose as “sheer magic” and “instant bonding.” Jose proffered the traditional Indian namaste to which Pancham responded with the universal hug. From that moment, Jose Flores considered Pancham as his guru, guide, friend and brother. Their bond lives on today. The maker of the National Award−winning documentary on Pancham Mujhe Chalte Jaana Hai, Brahmanand Singh recalls a recent phone call in 2012 with Jose Flores. Jose Flores mentioned of dreaming of Pancham, wherein Pancham was belting out a song in his typical style. Inspired and moved by his dream, Jose instantly incorporated the tune he dreamed into his latest work – the title track of a TV serial.


Bill Ortiz, the popular trumpet and horn player, conducted the horn and rhythm arrangement for Pantera. He also played all the trumpet and solo parts for Pantera. Bill would go on to become a key trumpet player for Carlos Santana’s band from 2000 through 2013. He recently released his own album Highest Wish with some of the veterans from Carlos Santana’s band.

For the vocals, Pete and Nilu arranged for the amazing talent that they titled as the “Triple A’s.” The “Triple A’s” was formed of singers: Alan Ross – the black soul singer, Angelo Pagan – the Latino (Puerto Rican) romantic singer and Amie Morita – the Japanese singer.


The drums for Pantera were played by the legendary drummer, educator and social activist Babatunde Olatunji. Babatunde had spread the sound of African drums and social activism throughout the United States and the world. His series of records in 1959 for Columbia Records titled Drums of Passion (which incidentally became the name of his group) was an introduction to Americans to world music and remains a popular album even today. As an activist, Babatunde had toured the American south with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and also participated with him on the march to Washington. As a musician, he was well known for his partnership with John Coltrane, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana.


The title of the album “Pantera” occurred to Jose Flores based on an incident Pete had narrated to him. One of Pete’s friends, who was a prince in Sandor, had invited Pete for a shikar (hunting expedition). When the Indo−Pak war broke out, Pete was unable to make that trip. Very soon he heard the news that the animal had become a man-eater and a menace. His prince friend had started to refer to the beast as “Pete’s panther.” And thus earlier that year when Pete was visiting Pancham in India, Jose excitedly called them up to announce the name of their album – Pantera. This would also become the name of Jose’s band in San Francisco. Pantera truly reflected the vibrant raw energy of the global talents brought together by Pete Gavankar, the Latin flavor of its music (pantera meant panther in Spanish) and the sheer speed and dexterity with which R.D. Burman managed to deliver the complete album – from concept to recording studio within 10 days.


For Pete and Nilu Gavankar, the challenge did not end with simply arranging for such stellar artists and recording facilities. The journey of Pantera threw many interesting challenges – including arranging for a real cheetah/panther for the album’s cover photoshoot. They managed to finally procure a live panther “Tamu” from Marine World in San Francisco. The panther and the 6-foot-tall model made many in the photo studio nervous with excitement.


For the initial rehearsals and music sittings, Pete had arranged for the entire top floor of the Holiday Inn hotel in downtown San Francisco, California. Here Pancham would judiciously spend each waking hour in the making of the final score. His days would begin early with music rehearsals and breakfast somewhere in between. The afternoons were spent at reviewing the recorded material and making changes and corrections. He lived, slept and worked like a man possessed for those 10 days until the final cut was ready for the recording studio.


According to Pete Gavankar, it was not always all work and worry. There were also those instances of unintended levity. Pancham had a keen interest to visit and explore San Francisco. And thus one of the evenings, Pancham decided to hail a cab and take the city tour. As minutes passed into hours, Pete Gavankar started getting worried, since he was not sure if Pancham had the hotel address or any phone number. Late in the evening Pancham returned to the hotel with a satisfied smile and an interesting tale. He was dressed in his traditional crisp silk kurta-pyjama and managed to get a “royal” tour of the fine city of San Francisco. The African−American cab driver had mistakenly assumed Pancham to be of royal descent (which in real life he was!!!) and kept asking Pancham stories about Indian princes, kingdoms and hidden treasures. Pete was not sure of the tales Pancham must have narrated to the beguiled cab driver, but was certainly surprised at Pancham’s nonchalant confidence and satisfaction over his little adventure in an unknown city.


If charming people was a talent, Pancham was extremely talented. However, hailing a cab and touring an unknown city is one thing. And recording an album with a team of Latin musicians who only spoke Spanish is something else. Pancham had no knowledge of Spanish (neither did Pete nor Nilu). And the Latin musicians spoke/understood little English. But Pancham proved that music is a language by itself. As a testament of his skills as a composer and a people’s person, Pancham managed to convey his requirements, the changes, the adjustments and detailed musical notes with each individual musician and to all as a music team. Pete Gavankar mentions that he was at a loss to understand if Pancham excelled as a global composer or citizen.


And thus miraculously work for Pantera was completed within the allocated timeframe of 10 days. However, the project had almost hit a snag that would have derailed the entire plan. But for the talent of a school-going child. Pete Gavankar mentions of an incident where a certain recorded track was discovered to be faulty. In the days of live recording, the usual process was to bring back the entire team of musicians and re-record all the tracks and mix. However in this case, except for Jose Flores and a couple of artists, most of the musicians had flown back to their destinations and commitments the previous day. Pancham identified the track as belonging to the congas/bongos played by a young artist. This young artist attended school and arrived at the recording room in Holiday Inn every afternoon. Pancham explained the situation to the boy in his broken English, lots of sign language and gesticulations. The boy indicated that he understood the need of the hour and asked for his usual glass of milk. After consuming his daily afternoon fortification, the boy started playing – his track only – without the need for the supporting track, nor any cues from the composer. And he delivered his part with perfection. Pancham was so impressed and moved by the young lad’s performance, he wondered aloud to Pete if he could arrange for him to adopt this child and take him back with him to India.


Pancham’s goal for Pantera was quite simple – to create music that was different and yet steeped in the music that had enchanted and influenced him for years. Pete had made him a once-in-a-lifetime offer − no expense spared, the best in talent and technology and an environment away from the maddening pace of Mumbai where music did not have any constraints of Hindi movie industry dictates. Pete Gavankar fondly recounted his offer to his best friend whom he referred to as “god’s gift to this earth” as “we will have the best party of our lives!”


Thus the style of Pantera evolved into an amalgamation of Latino and African beats, big band music, extempore yet expressive jazz pieces, English and Spanish lyrics and, yet, offered the soul of a movie soundtrack. In Indian or world music, Pantera stands distinctly different for its style and treatment. Another huge influence on the shaping of Pantera was the eclectic selection and the once-in-a-lifetime gathering of world-class artists and musicians.


Pancham had a distinct style and method to music making. Given his background in composing music for movie soundtracks and an immense fondness for Hollywood musicals, Pancham had the trait to associate and evoke visuals with his music. Every sound and instrument had a distinct role to play, a mood to evoke and a contribution to the overall story. Many in the music industry term him as a “visual composer.” He balanced the learnings from his father (legendary composer Sachin Dev Burman) on the frugal use of musicians and instruments with the lavishness of big band sound that would do justice to the medium of cinema. And thus his music for any medium always has that element of storytelling through its music.


A good example of Pancham’s visualization was narrated by Pete Gavankar. When Pancham started with the composition for the title track, the self-titled “Pantera,” his first question to Pete was – “Situation kya hai?” (What is the story/movie situation or scene?) When Pete responded that there was no situation or scene and that Pancham would have to work with an empty slate, this set Pancham in a contemplative mood for a moment. However, he was back the very next instant excitedly bouncing his own story ideas and scenes at Pete.


Pancham’s idea for Pantera was of a human being who has a challenge in life. A goal. Like for the Old Man in the Sea the big fish was the goal, in Pancham’s mind, Pantera was the goal. And it was the illusion that he would see and it would go away. And the man was now trying to catch it.


For the title track, Pancham visualized a prince riding on a white horse in the jungle on a hunting expedition. As he ventures deeper into the jungle, he is engulfed with the sounds of the jungle. Suddenly his horse comes to a screeching halt, almost overthrowing the prince. The horse and the prince are confronted by a tiger on the prowl. The tiger lets out a menacing roar. Startled, the prince pauses but soon responds with an imitating roar back at the tiger. The hunter becomes the hunted and the human spirit now has his goal to chase.


To match this vision, Patrick Gleeson and his electronic music wizardry conjures the music effects. Starting from the sounds of a busy city and its traffic, the effects transport the listener to the distant jungle. And soon, the listener is engulfed with the sounds of the wild. There is the distant drumming indicating the presence of a tribal community preparing for the hunt. And then we hear the panther’s growl. (Pancham had originally started by incorporating the sound of a real panther for the “roar.” However, the recording of the actual roar was deemed as not up to the mark. And once again Patrick’s electronic synthesized sounds came to the rescue.)


After the initial sound effects, Pancham’s music takes over. Babatunde’s drums start off a frenzied rhythm accompanied with electronic keyboards (playing the piano notes) and bass guitar. Next Pancham introduces the signature tune/theme on big brass – a tune that he would reuse decades later for a song in the movie Gardish (“Rang rangeeli raat aayi”). The signature is completed with chorals shouting “Pantera,” to be followed by the glorious synthesized roar of the panther.


The first interlude/filler music places the limelight on the guitars. In typical Santana style, they start off with long, sustained notes without much of vibrato. But soon the influence of jazz and rock becomes evident as the drums, hi-hats and electronic keyboards support the electric guitar and allow it to shine in its extempore. Interestingly, when Pantera was being made, Carlos Santana was going through a “down phase” in his career with none of his albums of that decade cutting the expected gold disc. Pancham and his team, on the other hand, were working on building on the Carlos Santana legacy with layers of global music.


The brass brings back the tune to the core theme.


The second interlude/filler music switches the tone with electronic sound effects – almost as if extending the chase between the man and the beast.


And when the brass brings the tune back to the core theme, Pancham introduces a brief change to the proceedings. The trumpets/brass and the chorals switch to a mellower tune that reminds one instantly of tunes from a Hindi movie soundtrack. And thus Pancham provides a glimpse of his musical background to the western audience.


After those brief notes, the brass returns to the song finale, which expectedly heads for the dramatic crescendo. Babatunde’s drums bring back the flavors and vibrancy of African beats. The trumpets, keyboards and drums work up a frenzy as the hunt between the human and the beast comes to an end. The jungle becomes quiet once again. As we leave the jungle behind and head toward the urban landscape, we hear the distinct sound of the Pantera’s roar. And Pancham completes his theme of the man, forever on the hunt, being lured by yet another vision.


Each track of Pantera has a delightful story behind it. For instance, when Pancham landed in San Francisco for the recording, it was Carnival Day. The atmosphere inspired him and he composed the “Carnaval” number on the album then and there.


Later that evening they visited a disco where RD and Jose’s joint number “In every city” was played.  An excited Pancham related what passed: “The number began with a bang, New York city, Chicago, LA, San Francisco and Bombay. All the people there started dancing. At the climax all were clapping. I was so moved I almost cried.”


Once the recording of Pantera was complete, Pete Gavankar got busy with the publishing and marketing of the album. Pancham flew back after his 20-day trip – to the busy world of Hindi cinema in Mumbai. They had kept the remaining unused tunes for a possible follow-up album to Pantera.


In the US, Pantera was released in the summer of the same year (1982) under the label of Roco Productions, Inc. (the name of Pete’s electronic engineering company). It featured on the New York hit parade alongside songs by Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Linda Ronstadt. The album climbed the charts of the Latin Billboard and also found success across the ocean in South American nations. It remained in the Top 10 of the Latin Billboard for a few weeks.


However, the journey of Pantera to the Indian shores would take another five years. Pete was in negotiation with both EMI and CBS for the Indian release. However, there were certain personnel issues that delayed the process. Eventually EMI acquired the rights for the album.


As was typical of EMI, for their top-notch international titles, they published it in India under the EMI label. The mainstream Indian music and other artists were published under their Indian brand HMV.


In 1987, EMI (India) released Pantera on vinyl LP records and audio cassette tapes. The music launch was hosted at the Sea Rock Hotel. Pancham’s good friend and the man responsible for his first break in Hindi films, Shammi Kapoor released the album in the presence of the leading names of the Hindi film industry.


Pantera did not find success in the Indian market upon release. For many, the album did not sound anything like what they had expected of or heard of Pancham in Hindi films. The Indian music market did not have any Latin music release of any significance prior to Pantera. In fact the Indian music market did not have many instances of private albums releases either – leave alone successful private albums. From a marketing and commercial success perspective, Pantera missed the mark. Perhaps that might have ended any motivation either Pete or Pancham had for that follow-up album.


1987 was also the year when Pancham would suffer his second heart attack – this time a more violent physical attack. This impacted Pancham’s ability to take on work assignments. He had started reducing his workload after his first stroke in 1985. However, after 1987, he almost withdrew from the music composing field as he prepared for his bypass surgery.


Although Pete and Pancham continued to be close friends in constant contact, they were never able to bridge that distance again and collaborate. In their last conversation before Pancham’s untimely demise, Pancham excitedly mentioned his imminent comeback to the Hindi film music limelight with the 1942 A Love Story soundtrack. He asked Pete for Jose’s phone number and invited Pete to visit India for 15 days as he worked on the movie’s background score. An excited Pete promised to come down to Mumbai to join him in the ensuing celebrations. He reaffirmed his faith in his friend Pancham as “the gift of god to me.”


Pete Gavankar used to visit India every year. After Pancham’s demise in 1994, Pete did not visit India for over a decade. Pete Gavankar passed away on Jan 22, 2012, at the age of 74.


As with any amazing thing that arrives before its time, Pantera too has grown a cult following over the years. The EMI (India) edition of Pantera has become a rare and much in demand item since EMI no longer publishes in India. Any available EMI (India) vinyl LP record fetches upward of $1000.00, and the audio cassette commands an equally handsome price. Thankfully in 2010, Pete Gavankar and his family hosted the website to make the US edition of the Pantera LP vinyl available in collector’s packaging.


And thus the dream hatched up in Las Vegas by two of the finest global citizens lives on in the adulation of thousands of music fans across the world. The resounding roar of the Pantera still echoes unabated!

 Shashi Rao