The wisdom of Socrates

He's alive and well and living in St Kitts. And Garry Steckles finds the calypsonian with the philosopher's name is as savvy as his Ancient Greek namesake

  • Sylvester "Socrates" Hodge. Photograph by Jacqui McCleave

Considering he’s one of the most famous human beings in history, remarkably little is known about the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was born in or around the year 470 BC and lived to be 71.That’s largely because he left no writings behind, and our knowledge of one of the founders of western philosophy is courtesy of what was written about him by his students, most notably Plato and Xenophon.

Let me introduce you to a modern-day Socrates who isn’t about to let that happen. He, too, is a philosopher, and can be controversial and, in some quarters (usually political or religious), less than popular. But Sylvester “Socrates” Hodge, one of the giants of contemporary calypso, has put those words of wisdom on life, people, and the world we live in to some of the most listenable of music.

The five-time Calypso Monarch of St Kitts, Socrates is justifiably proud to be a “real” calypsonian. And that is an accolade not to be earned easily or taken lightly. It means, essentially, that he writes what he sings, that the words and the melodies are his, and that he wants what he says to have a positive impact on society…particularly the society he lives and works in.

Let Socrates himself explain. “I have dealt with a wide range of topics, from political corruption, social ills, incest, domestic abuse, deadbeat dads, juvenile delinquency, health, crime and punishment, and humour,” he says, reflecting on a career that was jump-started when he saw the Mighty Sparrow – one of his early idols, along with Lord Melody and Lord Kitchener – singing “Congo Man” live in the

Sixties and knew right away he wanted to be a calypsonian.

That was in 1965, and while Socrates did not realize his ambition for quite a while, he had soon embarked on a musical apprenticeship. By 1968 – 69, he says, he had become a proficient guitarist, and did a stint playing bass for a steel band. He became the bass player for various brass bands in the US Virgin Islands, but didn’t-make his stage debut as a singer until 1980. The following year, he won a calypso competition in St Kitts – the first of 17 calypso titles have that included the Leeward Islands Calypso Monarch crown in 2000, along with those five St Kitts Monarch crowns.

But there’s a lot more to Socrates than winning monarch titles. While some of his repertoire – and he has this in common with just about all the great calypsonians – includes a healthy dose of double entendre, he regards himself first and foremost as a communicator and an educator …. much like the man whose name he adopted.

“My topics are influenced through my interactions with humanity, on a daily basis. I’m a social commentator who must inform on, applaud, critique, suggest, protest and question any form of social or political development that affects the people, be it good, bad or ugly.

“Today the role of the calypsonian as a messenger is greatly diminished in the face of the vast abundance of print and electronic media. This is a far cry from when the calypsonian and his message faced censorship, dating back to the plantation and the subsequent colonial era, where he faced great challenges in championing the causes of his people, mainly the downtrodden.

“Even though much of the sociopolitical landscape has changed, and many calypsonians have been forced to go the commercial route by singing mainly party- flavoured songs, many of the same challenges still remain and the calypsonian is still seen as the one who speaks the truth.”

Socrates believes firmly that the developments brought about by modern technology are not all for the better. His last full studio album, recorded in Trinidad, came out six years ago. As he puts it, “The pirates have closed down the record shops in St Kitts, so to invest US$8,000 just to compete with record pirates is not working for me.”

But Socrates has never been busier. He’s an in-demand stage performer who’s comfortable with reggae, jazz, R&B, salsa, pop, and soca, as well as calypso. He’s also a bandleader, calypso tent orqaniser/manager and songwriter for many other artists, including his daughter, Queen Anastasia, and son, the Mighty J. Socrates also enjoys sharing his knowledge of St Kitts in his capacity as the proprietor of VIP Tours, a company specialising in showing visitors around the island.

So for the last word on a man of words, over to a contributor to a discussion forum on the website of Frommer’s, the travel-guide giants: “I took a local friend’s recommendation for a tour operator named

Socrates (didn’t think to ask how he got that name but it fits) to get me to town, the beach, etc. What a treasure! He was resourceful, always on time, and very entertaining. I also took my first island tour with him and learned about things I had completely missed before – early history, development on the island, the monkey population … He’s thoroughly professional and I highly recommend him. And ask him to play one of his CDs for you. His songs are very clever – I was in stitches.”

Farewell to some reggae greats

Gregory Isaacs, who died in London in late October, was not only one of reggae’s most sublime voices, he was one of Jamaican music’s most remarkable characters. A drug addict. A ghetto bod man. And one of the nicest guys in the business, the late Tony Johnson, one of the founders of Reggae Sunsplash, once told me – while laughing about the time Gregory started a fire on a Sunsplash tour bus after a mishap with his crack pipe.

I had the privilege of seeing Gregory perform live many times, most memorably in a school gymnasium in Montreal in the early Eighties, backed by the Roots Radics at their peak. It was one of the best shows of any genre I’ve ever seen.

Gregory’s career was, to put it mildly, erratic. He made some of reggae’s greatest albums and could be one of its greatest live performers; he was also qUite capable of touching the opposite end of the artiste spectrum.

He was loved throughout the Caribbean and by reggae fans around the world First Sugar Minott, now Gregory Isaacs, A sad, sad year for reggae.

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