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Pop-Up Music Club: Tshombe Selby

This weekend and next, we’re trying something new here at WUNC. We’re calling it the Pop-Up Music Club. It’s a kind of mobile performance adventure, where we hit the road to hear from working North Carolina musicians — up-close and in their element.

We’ll hear them play impromptu gigs on their home turf. We’ll hear the stories they tell in church, and at the bar. And we’ll hear how the culture of the places they call home shapes their music.

To start the series, David Schulman takes us to a part of the state more famous for its history and fishing than for its music … Manteo, North Carolina.

David Schulman: Those lapping waves you hear are not a sound effect. We are at a weathered pier, jutting in the water off of Roanoke Island. A short walk from here is where the Brits first tried, and failed, to settle the new world. This pier connects to a boardwalk that doubles as the backstage for The Lost Colony Production, Paul Green’s outdoor drama that tells the story of that first English settlement. We’re now headed stage right because I want you to meet a remarkable singer. His name is Tshombe Selby. Other musicians on Roanoke Island hope for big things from him. For now, though, he’s working several jobs, including shifts as a bouncer and his job here as leader of the choir at The Lost Colony.

David Schulman: “Hey Tshombe.”

Tshombe Selby
Credit Bryan Blake
Tshombe Selby

Tshombe Selby: “Hello, how are you?”

David Schulman: “So, the stage here, we’ve got all these wooden pilings…”

Tshombe Selby: “Mhm”

David Schulman: “… like from back in the day.”

Tshombe Selby: “So right now, we’re here, we’re on house left, stage right and right here as you look to your left, this is what we call Indian stage. My dressing room is right over here. I come up here and I walk out along the rest of the choir members and we sing the prologue. [sings] This was the vision/this the fateless dream/tread softly softly now/these yellow stricken sands. And the basses go [sings] This is was the grail. I’m not a bass; I’m a tenor Now we’re gonna walk up uh.. uh.. the uh… parapet. You can see the dolphins. Fish are always jumping.”

David Schulman: “Roanoke Sound, right?”

Tshombe Selby: “Roanoke Sound. You can actually see the Wright Brothers monument. On Roanoke Island is where, you know, I’m from. It’ll always be home. People here, we’ve gone through things together, we’ve experienced things. I remember my father, his voice, and all the times we cut grass together and just people who have been in my life. And this singing and all this work is my hammer, it is my tool, it is my catering, it is my lawn service business. One of the main goals I learned from my father is always to have food in the freezer. So this is my ticket to always make sure I can provide for my family and, like my dad loves to do, to really help anybody he could.”

David Schulman: Tshombe’s singing career began just a seven-minute drive from the stage of the Lost Colony, in the historically black church where his late father was a deacon.

Haven Creek Missionary Baptist Church. It’s a modest brick building on the old main drag though Manteo, half a block from the ACE Hardware and the Pizza Hut.

Tshombe Selby: “This is the church that I grew up in and my family is from, the place I’ve done the most singing in my life.” 3:09

The church has been rebuilt a number of times through the years due to fires and hurricanes. The current structure has a glass door like suburban bank. There’s a peaceful grief counseling room, and muted sunlight streams into the sanctuary through tinted panes of glass. Behind the altar, there are tambourines, a small forest of mic stands and a powerful PA system.

This is a church that puts its heart and soul into its music.

David Schulman: “Can you tell me some of your earliest memories of music here?

Tshombe Selby: “ I remember when, when I was a kid starting off singing, the first time I really wanted to sing, I wanted to be like the other little kids who were able to march in. We have a thing that we used to do here as we would proceed as we came in to the sanctuary and everyone would rise and the choir would sing their song and then we would come to the altar and say a prayer and then we would proceed to the choir box. And I just thought that was so cool that they got to wear those robes, and they got to sit up there without their parents, and just… they looked like they were having so much fun, singing their songs and moving and clapping. And I just thought ‘that is what I want to do.’ And that is how I started singing.”

David Schulman: When I told people around Manteo we were thinking of featuring Tshombe as part of WUNC’s Pop-Up Music Club, there was at times a moment of reverent silence, even an involuntary gasp. He’s got a voice that moves people in this town. And not just the church matriarchs — one of whom we’ll meet in a moment.

Whether you’re talking with the music teacher at Manteo High, or a banker who plays bass in a wedding band, people here believe in Tshombe’s dreams of what he might become. They share in his hopes for a wider stage for his talents.

But for now, he’s running the PA and accompanying himself on the electronic keyboard at Haven Creek Missionary Baptist Church.

David Schulman: “Tshombe, while you settle in there at your keyboard, I also wanted to introduce another guest we have with us, Barbara Garrity-Blake. She’s from a bit farther south in Gloucester, but she’s known up and down the Carolina coast as a scholar and a sage of coastal living. Thanks a ton for joining us, Barbara.”

Barbara Garrity-Blake: “I’m happy to be here. “The Sage” is new but I’ll, I’ll take that title.”

David Schulman: “Alright so, I mean, here we are in the sanctuary of this church. Is there a gospel song you could sing for us that connects the power of the ocean.”

Tshombe Selby: “When I was a kid there, and we still sing the song now in the church, it’s a very popular song and everybody loves it when it gets sung, There’s a Storm Out On The Ocean.

Tshombe Selby, singing: “There’s a storm out on the Ocean/and it’s moving this a-way/ If your soul’s not anchored in Jesus/ It will surely drift away/Oh, drift away, Lord/drift away, Lord/ oh, it will surely drift away/ If your soul’s not anchored in Jesus/ it will surely, yes, drift away."

David Schulman: “Tshombe.”

Tshombe Selby: “Yes.”

David Schulman: “Seated in a pew near us, I see a big fan of yours.”

Tshombe Selby: “Yes.”

David Schulman: “Mother Doris H. Creecy. Um, I was talking with her earlier and she told me that you had a bit of a family connection to the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, which has quite a history here. It was the only black life-saving station up and down the whole coast

Tshombe Selby: “Exactly. Now I’m not the uh, historical authority on this but my grandmother was a Meekins and I believe that one of my relatives was a great swimmer. Swimming the rope out there to wherever the boat was that was wrecked and so that was his role and that’s who that person is.”

Barbara Garrity-Blake: “Yeah, I think it’s just a remarkable story that Richard Etheridge was a former slave and ended up being the keeper of that life-saving station. There was a horrible storm about 1896. Was it the wreck of E.S. Newman? And I think that that was your ancestor, Meekins, that swam out, swam the rope out to that ship and they ended up, that crew saved every member of that wreck including a three year old child. So it’s just a remarkable story”

Tshombe Selby: “You know, these men did not, you know, they knew what color they were, but they were not there because they were African American. They were out there because they loved their country and they loved helping people and they were just simply doing their job.”

David Schulman: “Well, I’m looking over at Mother Creecy right now.”

Tshombe Selby: “Mhm.”

David Schulman: “Is there any way I could coax the two of you to perhaps sing a little duet that connects to that Pea Island time? Something together?”

Tshombe Selby: “I’m sure the thought of Precious Lord, Take My Hand as they were going out there. Would do you think about that one?”

David Schulman: “Thomas A. Dorsey?”

Tshombe Selby: “Thomas A. Dorsey.”

David Schulman: “When was he born?”

Tshombe Selby: “The song might have been written after that, after he was born, I think. What other song…?”

Mother Doris H. Creecy: “I think Precious Lord, Take My Hand is good song.”

Tshombe Selby: “Do you want to start?

Mother Doris H. Creecy: “Yes.”

Tshombe Selby: “And I’ll follow you.

David Schulman: “Thank you for joining us, Mother Creecy.”

Tshombe Selby: “This is an example of how we do at church”

Tshombe Selby: “Go ahead.”

Mother Doris H. Creecy: Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on / Let me stand / I am tired/ [Tshombe Selby joins] I am weak/ I am won through the storms/Through the night/Lead me on/To the light/Take my hand, Precious Lord / And lead me home.

David Schulman: “Thank you, Mother Creecy. And ‘bravo’ to you both as they would say in the opera house.”

Tshombe Selby: “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.”

David Schulman: “Tshombe, let me ask you….

Tshombe Selby: “Mhm”

David Schulman: “You’ve got this range and agility with your voice, and you have taken it quite beyond church singing to actually singing opera. So can you tell me a little bit about how you made that connection.”

Tshombe Selby: “I went to Elizabeth City State University and studied with Professor Billy Hines. He was a choir director and also my voice teacher. I said ‘I want sing this ‘La Donna e Mobile.’ I couldn’t say it at that point ‘cause my Italian was terrible. I could barely read music. I want to see this song “La Donna e Mobile” and he would say ‘Uh, Tshombe, you got to know this music. You can’t fool anybody. If you’re going to try to sing this you got to do it well. You’re only as good as your last performance.”

David Schulman: “Would you sing us maybe a little bit of one of your favorite arias.”

Tshombe Selby: “Um, yes. Let me just find it in this little book I have here.”

Tshombe Selby: “So this is ‘La Donna e Mobile’ from Rigoletto. [sings] La donna è mobile / Qual piuma al vento, / Muta d'accento — e di pensiero / Sempre un amabile / Leggiadro viso / In pianto o in riso, — è menzognero / La donna è mobile / Qual piuma al vento / Muta d'accento — e di pensiero.”

David Schulman: “Tshombe Selby, singing an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto here at our WUNC’s Pop-up Music Club. Barbara, earlier, we were talking about this rescue of the E.S. Newman off the shore here in 1896 and that was the same year they did the premier of La Boheme by Puccini in Italian. The Roanoke Island of the Pea Island Life-Saving Crew and the Italy of Puccini, are those as worlds apart as they seem or were they really closer?”

Barbara Garrity-Blake: “Well, I would say closer because just the raw emotion and the coastal communities here, whether it’s the life-saving stations or the daily drama that unfolds at fish houses, it really is a daily, I don’t want to say performance, because it’s real, I guess the right word is drama.”

David Schulman: “The daily drama. And you did write a theatrical piece a few years ago called Fish House Opera. So, is there something operatic about this traditional life on the Outer Banks?”

Barbara Garrity-Blake: Absolutely. The ups and downs and, you know, folks that have experienced true hardship have had a real hard scrabbled life eeking out an existence at the edge of the Ocean here. The work songs, the sacred songs, all those expressions of life here, is just, it’s beautiful.”

David Schulman: We’re on Roanoke Island for this maiden voyage of the WUNC Pop-UP Music Club. It’s something new we’re trying, where we visit working musicians, informally, in the places that matter most to them.

Roanoke Island is tucked between the barrier islands of the outer banks and the North Carolina mainland, and for most of the past 4 centuries, it’s been an isolated place. Most everyone here worked the water.

Nowadays, though, the economy is driven by vacationers. And the young people of Roanoke Island, like Tshombe Selby, grow up with one foot in the island’s sandy soil, and the other in the wider world …

For Tshombe, that means dreaming of a career in grand opera. And we got talking about whether The Lost Colony is, in a sense, Roanoke Island’s own home-grown opera.

Tshombe Selby: “Well it’s not only a sense, it’s the truth. Um, it is a show that has only ever been performed here on Roanoke Island, um, at Fort Raleigh. There is evidence that where we actually perform is where the actual settlement was. So it is its own, literally, home-grown opera, or as we call it, symphonic drama. We have this particular scene where the women were creating the fish nets for fishing and the dialect and the dialogue that was spoken during that scene, you can probably go to Wanchese and listen at the local fish house right now as they’re heading shrimp or , you know, the catch is coming in, and they’re probably talking about some of the same topics as they were talking about then.”

David Schulman: “Would you sing a bit of music from The Lost Colony perhaps?”

Tshombe Selby: “Sure. Here’s one song, a little diddy diddy they always sing about Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship. Goes: [sing] Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship went a-sailing on the sea / And her name, it was the name of the golden trinity / As she sailed upon alone and the lonesome low / as she sailed upon the lonesome sea.”

David Schulman: “Let me ask you, Tshombe, you’re working at The Lost Colony, you’re working here at the church, you’re working as a bouncer pulling in those skills from maybe your football days on Manteo High School team.

Tshombe Selby: “Yeah… Bartender.”

David Schulman: “Bartender.”

Tshombe Selby: “Bus driver.”

David Schulman: “Bus driver. So where do you hope to see yourself and to see your voice in 5-10 years?”

Tshombe Selby: “Um, the Bible says to speak those things as so they are, paraphrased. Um, but every day, you know, if you want to be something, you say you get up in the morning and you act like you are going to do it. If you want a job, you don’t just sit at home. You got to put your shirt and tie on or you got to do whatever it takes to get to that job. So right now, I am on the road to being an understudy, having an internship at a opera house and then moving in to being known in the opera community and having people call me up so that I can share my voice and share my story.”

David Schulman: “Well it’s come about time to pack up our gear and strike our modest sets here on this version of WUNC’s Pop-Up Music club. I’m going to spell out your name in full so people can find you online without so much difficulty. It’s T-S-H-O-M-B-E S-E-L-B-Y.

Tshombe Selby: “That’s me! Thank you so much for having me. It’s has been a privilege and an honor to have li’l ol’ me to talk.”

David Schulman: “Li’l ol’ you. The offensive lineman, Tshombe Selby.”

Tshombe Selby: “Yes, that was in a former life. Now, trying to make myself littler [laughs].”
David Schulman: “Well, I wonder, could you give us a song to take us out. Maybe something you could sing and maybe something Barbara could join in on her guitar?”

Tshombe Selby: “I think we’ve already got a little something we want to do. Many people know this song and love this song and it is song that we sing at, people call them funerals, we call them home-going services because we really believe that it is a time to rejoice and it’s called I’ll Fly Away.”

Tshombe Selby: Some glad morning when this life is o'er, I'll fly away / To a home on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away /Oh, I'll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory I'll fly away / When I die, Hallelujah, by and by / I'll fly away / Oh, I'll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory, I'll fly away / When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, / I'll fly away

Tshombe Selby, singing us out in our first edition of the WUNC Pop-Up Music Club, with David Schulman.

This project is made possible in part by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Barbara Garrity-Blake advised us on the project, and you also heard her playing the guitar.

Next week, we’ll be back on the Outer Banks to meet a guitarist who’s made his living playing beach bars for 30 years.

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