A World Anew: The Music of Sydney Guillaume Program Notes

This special concert introduces us, singers and audience alike, to the music of Sydney Guillaume and also to a language unfamiliar to most of us—Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl, as it is known in Haiti. This language combines elements of French (a legacy of Haiti’s colonial past), various African languages (which enslaved people brought from their homelands), and Taino (from Haiti’s indigenous people). It is a wonderfully expressive language and written more phonetically than French (or English, for that matter). Although everyone speaks Kreyòl in Haiti, the language did not become an official language of the country until 1987; the country’s other official and widely spoken language is French, recognized for far longer. While both Sydney Guillaume and his father, Gabriel, who wrote the lyrics to most of the songs in this concert, are fully fluent in both languages, Sydney often chooses to use his choral writing to elevate Kreyòl and honor the complex history of his home country.

We begin with “This, Too, Shall Pass,” one of his few compositions with an English text, written by Lloyd Reshard, Jr., a noted operatic baritone, community coordinator for Americorps VISTA, and producer of “Over Jordan: Freedom of American Negros in Song.” As Sydney writes, this piece reminds us “to make the most of the present moment while time courses through the joys and pains of life.” After an opening choral statement that, no matter what happens, life will prevail, the piano begins a pattern like a river flowing onward, heedless of human activity above it. Time continues to move forward, through seasons of illness, hunger, or trouble, but also through occasions of joy (here the piano part becomes more lyrical). The lesson of it all urges us to use the time we have to love and to be kind.

The Latin phrase “Dominus Vobiscum” comes from the Roman Catholic Mass, while the rest of this piece explores in Haitian Creole what that phrase means in daily life. This piece has lyrics by Gabriel Toussaint Guillaume (b. 1939), Sydney’s father; in their collaborations, his words always come first. Gabriel Guillaume worked for many years to help reform the education system in his native Haiti and later as a teacher in Canada. He was recently elected as the General Coordinator of Haitian Ministry at Christ the King Catholic Church in Miami. He has written that he grounds his life in his country, his culture of origin, his family, and his faith in God. His lyrics here stress a double meaning in the title phrase—both the wish that the Lord will be with you and the reality that the Lord is with us already. The music begins and ends with the same text, while setting it completely differently. The beginning calmly welcomes the reassurance that God is within each of us, in the depths of our hearts. That soon yields to anxious questioning and seeking, as if we cannot believe what we already have, but when the original words return, the music turns the questioning into energetic affirmation. 

“Pour Toi, Mère,” the second choral piece Sydney ever wrote, grew out of a deeply personal situation. While he was in college, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent grueling treatments (the cancer went into remission for several years but later returned). Writing this piece helped him to cope with her ordeal, but at several points, the French words fail and the choir can express the complicated emotions only in a wash of wordless chords. Lively reminiscences of a happy childhood suddenly disappear as soloists imagine his mother’s suffering, while the choir’s part resembles sighs too deep for words. But words at last re-emerge as a choral prayer for God’s comfort and care, before they fade again into sighs. 

By contrast, “C’est Beau La Vie” brims with joyous energy, celebrating all the things that make life beautiful. We human beings have the unique opportunity to share our gifts—our knowledge, our resources, our hope and caring and inner light—with everyone around us, so that, regardless of undeniable difficulties, life remains beautiful. Sydney has stated that an early composition teacher encouraged him to use nonsense syllables in his choral writing while his choir was working on a similar Cuban piece full of tricky rhythms: “Once I realized that I could make up my own non-sense syllables for notes and rhythms that would not match regular words from the poem I was setting, I felt so free and empowered to compose for choir.” With dancelike rhythms, nonsense syllables, and no accompaniment, this song offers an almost ecstatic celebration.

Sydney describes “Nou Se Limyè” this way: “This piece takes its inspiration from the Divine Light we all carry within us.” Written mostly in Haitian Creole, the text makes one striking exception, when it quotes from Genesis in French. The piece begins by addressing listeners as children of light who need to emerge from the darkness and disorder that pervaded the universe before God said “Let there be light.” At that point, the music opens up a world of possibility for us, once we accept that light not only exists but that we ourselves can be the light. The final section forcefully asserts all the ways we can bring light into the world, “a passionate plea that our light must shine over every day.”

The playful and exciting “Tap-Tap” brings us back down to earth, offering rhythmic surprises and even sound effects. Sung a cappella, this piece was inspired by the beautifully colorful buses and taxis in Haiti. You can practically hear people running for the bus, voices jostling for space, even the whoosh as the bus takes off from the curb. Haitian-born poet Louis Marie Celestin (b. 1955) uses the tap-tap as a metaphor, encouraging people to “jump on the bus” and not let opportunities pass them by. 

“Akeem,” sung by the women of the ensemble, celebrates the birth in 2013 of Sydney’s first nephew and godson, Akeem Guillaume. As gentle as a lullaby, the words express joy and wonder at how the birth of one tiny baby can transform how we experience the world and give us hope for the future. But sometimes all we can do in the face of such a miracle is croon the baby’s name, over and over. Even just the name is music enough.

“Kouraj” envisions courage in an unexpected way. The first half of the piece, accompanied by percussion, repeatedly tells us to have courage and remain alert to the dangers of divided nations, cruelty, and those who persist in viewing others as enemies. True courage in such a world does not mean preparing to fight. Instead, it means having patience, learning to trust, and opening our hearts. At this point, the drums suddenly stop, and the music offers a lyrical vision of forgiveness and hope. Now when the drums return, they bring rhythms we can all dance to in peace—together.

Men in Blaque, a men’s ensemble established in 1997 at the University of California, Irvine, commissioned “Renmen, Renmen,” which they premiered in 2018. This piece evokes exactly the sort of courage needed—as it urges listeners, tentatively at first and then with growing confidence—to just reach out and love. Sometimes doing so risks transgressing arbitrary categories, like nationality, race, class, and even language. Addressed to “citizens of the world,” this song begins in Creole, includes a verse in French, and repeats its main theme—Go on and love—in English. We must allow nothing to keep us from loving. 

We close with the piece from which the title of our concerts was taken, and which  sums up the spirit of so much of Sydney’s music – “Yon Monn Nouvo” (A World Anew).  This piece features a double choir and invites all of us to join together to build a world anew. It quotes two Haitian proverbs about how we need each other, which have analogs in many cultures, and uses French, Haitian Creole, and made-up syllables in driving rhythms to create a rich diversity of sounds. Toward the end, the choir repeats the opening words, but the meter changes into a swirling dance, intensified by the piano and percussion. Yes, building a new world will take work, yet at the same time will create joy.

— Susan Wladaver-Morgan