AK: Judge Jamming

Elaine Andrews. Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage
Elaine Andrews. Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

What do Alaska’s judges do when they are not sitting on the bench?   Do they ponder weighty tomes, or engage in deep discussion about the legal issues of the day?  Maybe some of them do that, but KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer found that quite a number of Anchorage judges get together and play ukulele’s for after hours fun.

 The Ukelele, or more properly pronounced, OOO kalele, originated in Hawaii in the nineteenth century. The small, four stringed instrument was influenced by Portuguese immigrants on the Islands. By the early 20th century, the ukelele reached the United States. These days, its distinctive sound is showing up in pop music

Young ukelele virtuosos, like Jake Shimabukuro, are using YouTube and their own websites to widen the tiny instruments’s appeal to the general public

 You’re hearing Jake Shimabukuro now, who’s no slouch when it comes to bending the ukelele’s strings.

 Jake shreds, and one of his biggest fans is none other than Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe who, when not on the bench, plays the ukelele herself. She says it runs in her family.

“Dad was a lifelong learner and he took piano lessons with us and he taught us to play the ukelele.”

She and her sister played as kids

“He told us that if we knew three or four chords, we could play any song. So we learned those basic chords and learned to play from him.” 

She likes ukelele’s so much she owns three of them. The Chief Justice says it’s an easy instrument to learn.

She often gives them to friends as gifts. And she leads others within Anchorage’s legal circle for regular ukelele jams that go on for hours

“Partly it was motivated by selfish reasons, that I wanted people to play with. “

Retired judge Elaine Andrews is part of the ukelele gang. We’re in Andrews kitchen while she practices. Andrews says she’s no virtuoso, but she’s hooked on the instrument

 “The people who play it tend to put their forefinger and their thumb together and strum in that fashion”… (music ambience ). ” It has a lovely tone. When I first picked this up, they just kept telling me, if you just pick up two or three chords, including a C that takes one finger, an F that takes two fingers, and a G.. with those three chords, you can play a song. “

 The group calls itself Ukealaska, and has put together its own songbook, chock full of old favorites.  Andrews strums the chords to “Mack the Knife”.

“It’s like a tumbleweed, [it] keeps picking up people who, either have an interest, or they used to play it when they were younger, and they want to get into it. We have such a wide range of talent, and it is a very accepting, non-judgemental group, people just show up.”]

Attorney Barb Malchek is a mainstay of the group. She too played as a child.  Now she’s got several ukeleles.. bass, tenor, soprano and classical.

“And the first time I can ever remember playing a ukelele, I was in seventh grade. And we must have had one hanging around the house, and I picked it up, and then my cross the street neighbor and I came in second in the school talent show playing our intstruments and singing. And I can’t really remember ever playing it again after that.”

But in later life, she picked it up again. Malchek remembers how the ukelele band got started over dinner at Chief Justice Dana Fabe’s house

..”and she mentioned that she mentioned that she plays the ukelele, so Dana pulled out her ukelele’s and we just started strumming. And it just came back right away. So we were playing a little bit and that was really kind of the beginning of our group. And then she invited these other friends of hers, a lot of whom are judges or ex-judges, and it was very intimidating for me, at first. I mean, these are the people I am used to calling ‘your honor’ , but, I don’t know, the ukelele is kind of the great equalizer. “

Malchek owns several of them these days.. one’s even electric. She picks it up and gives it a strum.  The sound is irresistable  and fills the room.
She plays a tag line a Hawaiin elder showed her how to do once.

Chief Justice Fabe says the ukelele can accompany any kind of music –pop, jazz, folk

“And it’s a very forgiving instrument, you don’t have to be playing it for very long and get a great sound out of it. ” 

Ukelele actually means ” jumping flea” in Hawaiian, and despite its growing versatility, will ever be synonymous with the Islands.

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