It’s a rare thing, indeed, when the beauty of the music and the beauty of the setting match as well as what we had at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum Juneteenth celebration this year.
The temperature at 5:00 p.m. when the event began, was pleasant, there was not a cloud in the sky, the humidity was low—it would be hard to imagine better weather to celebrate freedom.
Remarks by Pea Island Cookhouse Board President Darrell Collins describing the horrors of the journey from Africa to slavery put the day in perspective. Independent US Senate candidate Michelle Lewis called out a society that has not yet rid itself of the stain of racism and violence.
Yet both ended their observations on notes of hope and unity.
What made the day truly memorable, though, was the gift of music, the lifting of voices in song, praise and yes, even in protest.
At last year’s Juneteenth celebration at the Cookhouse Museum, native son Tshombe Selby gave an extraordinary performance establishing clearly why he is a lyric tenor performing regularly at the Met in New York and this past year at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
This year, he built on that success, reaching into his college years at ECSU to bring together six of his choir mates from that time.
What they performed was stunning in its beauty and complexity. And, what may make the performance even more remarkable is that this group has not sung together for some 16 or 17 years.
From the first notes of I Can Tell the World, it seemed as though the seven musicians on the porch of the Cookhouse Museum had never taken a break from rehearsing or performing together.
Good choral music is more than the quality of the voices; it is the ability of the voices to blend together and create a mosaic of sound.
I Can Tell the World is a traditional spiritual that is a frequent part of choral music. To make it stand out, and the ECSU alumni chorus took what is really at its most basic, a fairly simple song…and they elevated it.
The voices began almost singing in unison. The voices became almost a chant, singing, “I can tell the world, yes, about this, I can tell the nations, yes, that I'm blessed.”
As that is establish the soprano voices soar above that chant, creating extraordinary levels of complexity and storytelling in music.
Perhaps no selection highlighted just how good this group of performers was as the arrangement and interpretation of Non Nobis, Domine.
The title of the song is Latin and quotes the opening of Psalm 115 in the King James Version of the Bible. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory…”
The Juneteenth ECSU alumni chorus stamped this with their own sound. There is very much a chantlike quality to the music, typically with lower register voices repeating the opening refrain “Non Nobis, Domine, Non nobis Domine, Sed nomini, Sed nomini, Tu o da gloriam…”
Typically the sopranos come in and carry the melody reciting the verse. Although the soprano voices were prominent in this arrangement, carrying the music forward fell to the alto, Alishia McClenney, to tie everything together. It was markedly different than most arrangements and created a memorable sound.
They also took on a more modern song, Bobby McFerrin’s Psalm 23 homage to his mother.
The Lord is my Shepard, I have all I need
She makes me lie down in green meadows
Beside the still waters, She will lead
With its emphasis on the power of a mother as a godlike figure, the song renews its relevance in a beautiful and moving way.
The highlight of the day, though, had to be Tshombe Selby and the resonance, power and range of his voice.
His performance began with Lift Every Voice and Sing. Probably written in 1917 by James Weldon Johnson, the song is often seen as the African-American national anthem.
The lyrics are a stirring call to action beginning with the first verse:
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Especially on Juneteenth when the song is performed, tradition calls for the audience to stand. Sitting would not have been possible with Selby’s ringing endorsement of the words of the song,
What makes a recital from Selby unique and significant is his love of the American spiritual. Certainly part of that is his early experience in music at Haven Creek Baptist Church in Manteo. But he has gone far beyond that early education to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the spiritual songbook.
His selections on Sunday focused on better known hymns, yet because he understands the story behind the music so well, his interpretation and performance take on extra meaning.
Deep River is about as traditional as a spiritual can be, first appearing in a hymnal of traditional music in 1916. What Selby does is interpret the song using the dynamic scope of his voice, moving effortlessly from a forte to a pianissimo, while giving equal value to every note, not matter where it is within his vocal range.
Where Selby is particularly wonderful, is when he can really give his voice full permission to just fill the air with its power. Ride on King Jesus almost seems as though it was written for him.
His voice holds the melody perfectly, yet the power of it is almost overwhelming, grabbing the audience’s attention and compelling all eyes on him.
He ended his performance with Make Them Hear You, the powerful yet plaintive call for the world to acknowledge the pain of being overlooked and ignored comes at the end of the Tony award winning play, Ragtime.
As the final song of the day, on Juneteenth it was extraordinarily appropriate.
“I could not put down my sword when justice was my right…” are the words.
Selby imbued the song with a beauty and meaning that elevated the song to a call to action, letting the world know that “…Justice be demanded by ten million righteous men…”
It was a perfect way to end what may have been a perfect day.