Eldonna May took piano lessons at five, studied with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, attended the Interlochen Arts Academy and toured Europe with the Ford Motor Youth Symphony. But it would be on a different set of keys, and on a different continent, that she would engage in some of the most meaningful work of her career.
May holds a bachelor’s degree in music performance, a master’s degree in musicology and an MBA from Wayne State University, a Ph.D. in musicology from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in online teaching from Florida State University. Also on the music faculty at Wayne State, May teaches World Music and Introduction to the Arts at Macomb, online and on campus.
“What I appreciate so much about Macomb is the privilege of working in a department with outstanding administrators and faculty,” says May, who first taught online at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. “Stu (Scott) was one of the first in Michigan to develop an online, interdisciplinary humanities course and I very much wanted to be part of the process.”
But she may never have been if not for a lecture she heard as an undergrad on the history behind Richard Strauss’ musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, which convinced her to change her musical direction from performance-driven to scholarly study. That, in turn, led to her discovery of kwaito, a music genre with ties to hip-hop and jazz, popular in Botswana, Africa. May has just completed a year of research there on a Fulbright Fellowship – as prestigious and competitive in academia as the Oscar is in Hollywood.
“Ever since I was an undergrad, I’ve had a fascination with African history,” says May – shown center here at the U.S. Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana, with Gao Lemmenyane, director of the Centre for the Arts in Gaborone and Marang Mutuna, associate dean for Internationalization & Educational Outreach at Botho University. “In doing research on kwaito, I developed a marvelous relationship with Botho’s faculty, which led to the Fulbright.”
The Fulbright covered all of the travel and living expenses for what was May’s fifth trip to Africa. At Botho, she developed a curriculum for the university’s new music business program and embarked upon a book project about kwaito with one of its faculty.
“Everything in Botswana is based on an oral tradition, few can read music,” says May. “But the students there so desperately want to learn.”
Back at Macomb, May is incorporating all that she learned about kwaito into her World Music class. “At the end of the day,” she says, “it’s all about helping our students grow intellectually.”