Vaneisa: Pork, Daisy, and country vibes—how Scrunter conquered Christmas

I’ve been on a Scrunter loop, studying lyrics, music, the melodies, the distinctive raspiness of his voice—and it made me want to pay tribute to this one of our outstanding West Indians.

I’d interviewed him way back in 1998, and the article said much of what I wanted to say today, 25 years later. I am reproducing here an edited version.

Owen Johnson, better known as “Scrunter”, performs at a event.

Owen Reyes Johnson, known as Scrunter the calypsonian, made an indelible mark in the calypso world from the first time he recorded a song in 1980. It was the year of his runaway hit, “Woman on the Bass”—a calypso describing a boycott by the steelbands and referring to the revellers’ desire for the woman playing the bass pans.

The steelband rendition by All Stars remains an unforgettable classic. He also had another hit, “Take the Number”, advising young girls to get the registration number of vehicles before getting into cars with strange men.

And they were the first of a string of hits which included “Crapaud Revolution”, “Sing in She Party”, “Oil in the Coil” and “The Will”. That last one derived from his famed relationship with the late legend, Lord Kitchener, whose style deeply influenced his music.

After years of unforgettable contributions to the calypso archival memory, he created a new image with a host of songs celebrating Christmas, Caribbean-style.

Former Calypso Monarch, soca star and parang icon Scrunter.

Scrunter’s entry into that genre began in 1990, when he decided “I must do a parang”, and sat down on a big stone under a mango tree in the large paved yard of his Sangre Grande pub, Scrunter’s Forest to write. He came up with “Piece ah Pork” right there, drawing easily on his lifelong experiences in the country, as he called it.

On Christmas Day, he said, everybody stayed home. But on Boxing Day the roving began, gathering momentum as friends dropped in on each other, taking a drink, eating a little something, then taking off for yet another home with yet another merry body in tow—spirits rising rapidly as day made night.

On that day when he sat down in the shade of that young mango tree to write, he thought about the kind of communal feeling evoked by the late parang queen, Daisy Voisin, and he wanted to transmit this too.

Photo: Iconic late Parang Queen and Arimian Daisy Voisin is a former Humming Bird Medal (silver) recipient (1988) and was also awarded the Parang Association’s Gold medal (1983) and the National Parang Association of Trinidad and Tobago Gold medal (1988).
(Courtesy Nalis)

“Pork is one of the main things for Christmas for us,” he said. “Long before Christmas Eve night, men done have dey three piece of wood and dey coals, and dey big pan, and they ready to kill the pigs before Christmas.”

“From small,” he said, he used to mind pigs. The first of nine children, he was always looking out for the younger ones. He began raising the porkers, starting with a couple, then ending up with about forty—of which he slaughtered at least seven every Christmas.

This readying of the pigs for the hams, the pastelles, the roasts and stews symbolised the beginning of the season; and it was this centrality he tried to capture in, “Piece ah Pork”.

Want a piece of pork?

His country people identified joyfully with the images he conjured and it became one of the largest selling local songs on the Christmas market. He remembered gleefully that in 1998: “You couldn’t get pork nowhere to buy. The price went up to $15 a pound.”

His Christmas repertoire is richly evocative of an atmosphere he has known and loved all his life. Tremendously nostalgic, they contain such an adroit humour that the listener is not yanked down into melancholy, but is elevated to the mood of celebration.

Think about “Leroy”, “Eat Something”, “That Eh Working Here Tonight”, “Madame Jeffrey”, (on his mother, Antonia), “Anita”—all of these describe a bygone era of the working-class life.

A Scrunter album cover.

Lurking within the simple stories is the often ribald double entendre that comes from the mischievous sense of humour so evident in his impish grin and his salacious eyes, which, even on that morning after a night of hunting his beloved manicou, manage to maintain a remarkable clearness.

From his childhood, roving about in the bush of Sangre Grande and the forest of Vega de Oropouche, in the midst of the flora and the fauna, stalking creatures, listening to the sounds of the wild; he developed an acute sense of observation.

Coupled with his passion for life and his gusto for adventure, his imagination enlivened every thought upon which it fluttered.

A young Scrunter plays the guitar.

He lit up as he recalled his sensations of Christmas.

“Children bussing bamboo! We used to cut bamboo for so, and all now so we bussing bamboo everywhere. Now they only bussing bamboo for Divali,” he said.

“We used to sing all kinds of Christmas carols,” he paused and took a deep breath. “And that breeze! The air itself used to be different. Your mother would be sewing curtains, and you could smell varnish and paint.

Ham and grog for Christmas.
(via Destinationtnt)

“And all them cake and bread they would be putting into the big, dirt ovens outside would make your belly grumble.”

That’s what I wanted to sing about, he said.

Scrunter’s allure comes not just from the images his lyrics conjure, but from his wonderful village voice. It has the remarkable quality of sounding as if it has been soaked in plenty bush rum, and maybe it has; but its rough dryness serves to present that notion of community in its entirety.

The inimitable Scrunter.
(via The Caribbean Camera)

And as he was himself reminded, that is your family. Thanks, Scrunter.

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  1. Tell Owen he’s visiting the wrong neighborhoods if he thinks they only buss bamboo for Divali. Also, some traditions are best only in memory, not for re-living or reviving. Bussing bamboo is one if those…too dangerous for these days, especially with impish, no-behaviour youth who want to point their bamboo at passers-by or passing vehicles….yes, definitely not going to be encouraging that form of misbehavior to persist – sorry, not sorry. That eh wukking…

  2. It’s easy to forget, almost 40 years on, that taking the name Scrunter was a deliberate attempt to identify with the dispossessed. Kitchener, Bomber, Terror, Fighter, even Sparrow and Melody had had a different motivation.

    So I have a query about the less-than-careful phrasing of this sentence: “He also had another hit, “Take the Number”, advising young girls to get the registration number of vehicles before getting into cars with strange men.”

    Methinks this line gives–or can give–completely the wrong impression; the mother’s instruction, I think, is to take the number “once yuh see the DRIVER look strange.”

    There may be the suggestion that we are dealing with a recalcitrant young girl in “I talkin to you, you sucking yuh teeth…” All in all, though, Scrunter’s mother appears to be pointing fingers rather at men (including Hindu priests!) who are on the lookout for vulnerable girls and whose intentions are, shall we say, less than honourable.

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