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Thesis Spotlight: Kapena Baptista '16

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On initial glance, the black-and-white photo on the screen tells a simple story—that of people descending the stairs to an airplane. But certain details stand out: the man wearing a heavy parka; the leis adorning the figures’ necks; the two barefoot girls, incongruous in their grass skirt and bras. One of the women is shivering. “This photo is of [dancers Leo Akau and Nona Wilson] exiting their plane at JFK in the dead of winter,” Kapena Baptista ’16 says. He gestures to his laptop as he continues to explain the picture’s backstory. “[Wilson is] insanely cold, but they had to do that because the hotel wanted them to... get this photo…. I wrote, like, 15 pages on this image basically because it’s a very heavy image…. They are almost rendered magical, but at the same time, the magic is almost ridiculous.”

A joint concentrator in music and anthropology, Baptista is speaking about his thesis on the dancers of a Hawaiian-themed showroom, which existed at the Lexington Hotel in New York from 1937 to 1966. Entitled “‘Lovely Hula Hands’: Native Hawaiian Identity in Hapa-Haole Music and Hula Performance,” the ethnomusicology thesis considers the roots behind the romanticized vision of Hawaii. “When you hear the word ‘Hawaii,’ what do you think?” he says. “[You think of] a beach, sunsets, palm trees, hula girls, et cetera. Throughout my project, I trace that to the development of tourism and the buildings of hotels in Hawaii, and link that to the development of this showroom in New York City, 5000 miles away.”

Baptista came upon the idea for his thesis sporadically. He initially wanted to focus on the Hawaiian Renaissance, a movement which generated backlash toward the touristic definition of Hawaii. However, after seeing an event on Facebook described as the “75th Anniversary of Hawaiian Room,” he booked a ticket to the celebration and met several of the former dancers at a dinner. This initial correspondence led to a trip to Hawaii in the summer, in which he looked into historical archives and conducted interviews with the women. “Through a genre, performance, and practice that can be easily problematized,” he says, “you get these narratives of survival that I found to be really quite fascinating.”

The product of his extensive research is a 95-page paper that delves into not only the technical aspects of the Hawaiian-inspired performances at the Lexington Hotel—the music used, the instruments involved, and their histories—but also the women’s lives and relationships with the people around them, from their past interactions with the showroom to their present associations. In Baptista’s consideration of the women’s current lives, he is able to bring in his prior interest with the Hawaiian Renaissance, though he now views the topic from a different perspective. “Songs about Hawaii during that time [of the 1930s to 1960s] were either very humorous or very romantic, but come the Renaissance, songs about Hawaii became very political,” he says. “A lot of what I talked about with the older women was how they visualize themselves now within the context of Haole… and how they position themselves more so with younger generations that are growing up… interacting with this very formalized version of Hula that has become very sacred, very ritualized.”

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Though he worked on a thesis combining both anthropology and music, Baptista did not find it difficult to generate a topic that links the two focus fields, mostly because there already exists an area of study blending the two areas—ethnomusicology. For him, however, the greatest challenge was negotiating the classical-focused tradition with his desire to study a musical form that is more reflexive and not Western-based. “I am a classical musician,” he says. “But my more scholarly and personal interests were invested in music that existed outside of [that] domain, and I made it work.”

Ultimately, Baptista’s thesis is both a sensitive study into a historical and cultural event and a thoughtful narrative—one that serves both the dancers whose tales fill its pages but also himself. “I saw this project as a way for me to get to know more about myself as a Hawaiian,” he says. “And by looking at my culture and history through music in all of its complexity and consulting with more Hawaiians about it, I felt [the project] to be a really rewarding process. It’s such a wealth of information, waiting to be told.”

—Staff writer Ha D.H. Le can be reached at ha.le@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @hadh_le.

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