Using Ukuleles to Change the Lives of Some of India’s Most Vulnerable

From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY AUDREY COLEMAN

[Editor’s note: This feature deals with sensitive themes that may not be suitable for all readers.]

In a sleepy, run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) where people commonly bathe at the public water pump, stands a three-story house that has electricity and running water, plus three adjacent buildings on its grounds, a pond, and play area. Its dormitories house 100 to 150 girls and young women rescued from forced prostitution. The buildings and grounds are surrounded by walls and barbed wire. A security guard is posted at the gate 24/7. There is no telling when sex traffickers might attempt to break in and reclaim “their slaves.”

This is not a place one would normally associate with the ukulele. Since early 2015, however, ukulele classes have been a source of hope, pride, camaraderie, and love. For the survivors Laurie Kallevig teaches, the uplifting power of music can be as important as the health care, mental-health services, vocational training, and literacy instruction available at the Sanlaap India shelter. As they learn to play, they bond with the blonde, Minnesota-born 54-year old who is teaching them. “I love working with these girls and singing and teaching,” Kallevig says. “It comes pretty naturally to me.”

Using English and the bit of Bengali she has picked up, Kallevig teaches 90-minute morning, afternoon, and evening classes, five days a week, to groups of beginner and intermediate-level players. Those who know some English serve as translators and advanced players are encouraged to help teach their peers.

Survivors typically stay at the Kolkata shelter for a year or more while the anti-trafficking organization known as Sanlaap India builds legal cases against the traffickers who kidnapped them. [Editor’s note: Exact numbers of sex trafficked women and girls are difficult to count in India, but the United States Department of State, the United Nations, and India’s Human Rights Commission agree that millions of girls—mostly aged nine to 14 years old—are victims of India’s sex trafficking culture.] Playing the ukulele attracts survivors who see it as possibly fun but often daunting as well.

“These girls come to my class not only as a blank page but kind of a closed page,” says Kallevig. “They need to learn how to learn. If you’ve been told your whole life [by family and/or traffickers] that you are stupid, that you can’t learn, and you’re worthless, then your mind is not practiced in learning something. These girls say negative things to themselves that get recycled in their heads over and over.” To counteract this negativity, Kallevig composed a meditation that her students repeat in Bengali and English at the start of each class. It’s followed by a moment of silence. [Editor’s note: The verse is included below.]


Along with tremendous patience and unconditional acceptance of each participant’s learning pace, Kallevig occasionally builds in an external incentive. For example, she will announce on Friday that students who master some specific skill will be named “Chocolate Champions.” The survivors light up at the prospect of earning a piece of chocolate as a reward for learning.

Laurie Kallevig has been teaching the ukulele to survivors in different parts of India since 2013 and has seen first-hand the deadly and sometimes baffling effects of sex trafficking on its victims. She is no longer surprised that many of those rescued from prostitution feel newly imprisoned in the shelter. “These girls often want to run straight back to the brothel,” she says. “They think that’s their life. They’ve been so brainwashed and so indoctrinated into that [environment]… They are told that all kinds of horrible things will happen to them on the outside.”


My main goal is to show the survivors love—and the ukulele is a fabulous little vehicle to deliver that love.

And so the walls, barbed wire, and guarded gate at the Sanlaap shelter function not only to keep intruders out, but also to keep survivors inside.

Kallevig teaches ukulele at the Kolkata shelter for six months at a time, returning to rural Minnesota to care for her 92-year-old father and to raise funds for the next six-month teaching stint. While she teaches in India, her twin sister, Lois, takes over caregiver duties for six months. “Lois has been my number-one supporter on this journey. She is my best friend. And when I’m in India, we chat online every day—usually twice a day. She is my number-one financial supporter and encourager.”

Kallevig credits her childhood years in Hendricks, Minnesota (184 miles west of Minneapolis, population 710), with providing the musical background and warm relationships that contribute to her success connecting with survivors. “The people are so loving and it’s so community-minded and generous and safe.”

Smiles That “Light Up a Room”

This stable background starkly contrasts the physical, emotional, and educational deprivations that most survivors have suffered even before being trafficked. The resulting low self-esteem and lack of confidence sometimes spill over into negative behavior that can derail a class. Kallevig recalls how 17-year-old Latika (not her real name) expressed frustration at progressing more slowly than her peers, a problem worsened by skipping classes. One day in class, after struggling to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” Latika put her ukulele on the floor announced defeat. Preeti, an English-speaking student, translated for Kallevig. Latika had said she was finished. Kallevig recorded what happened next in her blog for February 28, 2015:

I took her hand and said, “Oh, Latika, ap hogaya nahin (you are not finished). Absolutely not—hogaya nahin.”

We went through the song again, taking special care on the parts she was having trouble with. She was getting it. I could see hope and confidence building. Another student… helped her, too. Latika turned back toward me and touched my arm. She was ready to play. Everyone got quiet and we all watched her play. Her fingers trembled as she fought every line against making a mistake. Could she do it? Yes!! She made it through! Everyone cheered!

Latika laughed and laughed like she just heard the best joke ever…

A few days later (Preeti) led an evening practice session. I stopped by and looked in the window. “Is Latika here?” I said.

“Yes, she’s here,” said Preeti… “Latika says you must really love her,” said Preeti.


“I do,” I said. “I love all the girls.”

“She said, ‘Why does she love me?’”

And I thought of all the love—from my sister and brothers and dad and cousins and nieces and nephews and… other dear friends in my life—that I carry to these girls here in India…I didn’t think I could explain all that. So I said, “Tell her I love her because when she smiles, she lights up the room.”

What Kallevig calls her “long-term love affair with India,” began during her senior year at St. Olaf College (in Northfield, Minnesota), when she spent several months in India through an international travel program.

Only after graduating from St. Olaf and returning to South Asia to go trekking did she find out that in her beloved India thousands of girls each year, some as young as five years old, are kidnapped and forced into the sex trade. Kallevig wanted to help the victims, but she didn’t know what she could offer. The problem gnawed at her for over ten years, even as she completed master’s degrees, relocated to Los Angeles, and pursued career opportunities. Kallevig’s sister and friends in LA urged her to act on her desire to help victims of human-trafficking.


In 2011, Kallevig headed to India to volunteer for an anti-trafficking organization. Not yet consciously planning to use music with survivors, she brought along the guitar she had learned to play in LA. The idea to use music only surfaced when the staff at the office of an anti-trafficking organization in New Delhi invited her to visit a shelter where they were doing some training. “I asked if I could bring my guitar and sing some songs with the girls,” she recalls. “After [the training] was over, I brought out my guitar, and the girls zoomed around it, wanted to know how it worked, wanted to strum it. They had so much fun singing the ABC song and ‘Happy Birthday’ that I thought, ‘Wow! This is something that I could do to work with girls directly, instead of sitting in an office.’”

After concluding that the guitar would pose too lengthy a learning curve, Kallevig considered the more portable, user-friendly ukulele, though she never had felt much affinity for it.

“I thought of it as fun, but it was the ‘lesser’ instrument,” she says. “I grew up with the Tiny Tim image in my mind. Later, I knew the uke was re-emerging as a bona fide instrument that people were having a lot of fun with, but I wasn’t connected to it. I had no interest in it until I thought, ‘I can’t teach these girls to play guitar, but I could teach them how to play ukulele.’”

Drawing on her knowledge of the guitar and on internet resources, she spent the summer of 2012 learning to play the ukulele. “I went online, got chord charts, found the Ukulele Underground videos and it was—OK, ready, go!” With a rough concept of the Survivor Girl Ukulele Band project in her head, she sought donations of ukuleles for her future students. One letter to Petaluma, California-based Kala Ukulele yielded a gift of 20 Makala Dolphin soprano ukuleles, which come in engaging, vibrant colors the students love. Since the first shipment in 2012, Kala has donated 24 ukuleles a year to the Survivor Girl Ukulele Band.

Between 2013 and 2015, Kallevig taught ukulele at various venues, seeking a supportive home for her SGUB project. At one point, she was teaching ukulele to working prostitutes and pimps at a drop-in center in the red-light district in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay). Each experience deepened her understanding of factors that make girls vulnerable to being trafficked—poverty, malnourishment, and lack of education.

Kallevig grew close to her students during her four-month stint at a shelter in Puna, a town close to Mumbai, but left the shelter after clashing with the staff over their treatment of survivors. Since then she has contacted repatriated Bangladeshi survivors she taught there. “Just this past year I reconnected with one girl who is now happily married, has a baby, and she’s still playing ukulele.”

However, reconnecting has not always yielded happy news. “One of the girls who I thought was so strong married a guy who is now pimping her in Bangladesh.”

Eventually the head of the Bangladeshi Women Lawyers Association, who was helping Kallevig contact her Bangladeshi former students, introduced her to Sanlaap India founder, Indrani Sinha, who died last year. The anti-trafficking organization’s shelter in Kolkata became the home base for Survivor Girl Ukulele Band and Sinha became a source of wisdom and inspiration for Kallevig.

With Sinha’s support, Kallevig sought opportunities for her ukulele students to perform at public events. For example, they have played in programs observing the annual Protect the Child Day and for celebrations of the birthday of the Bengali Nobel prize-winning poet Rabinidranath Tagore.

One performance ignited a rare clash between Kallevig and the Sanlaap shelter staff. SGUB was invited to perform at a rally of One Billion Rising, a global movement opposing violence toward women. “The event organizers said I could bring only ten girls, so I was going to take the most senior girls. But the beginners were so devastated that they weren’t going to get to go, that the senior girls [decided to bow out and let the beginners go instead]. So it was a very beginner-esque performance, but they did very well. After the performance, the girls felt great. However, a couple of the staff at Sanlaap told the girls that they weren’t good.”

Kallevig was incensed. “I told them, ‘Yes, they were good. They are beginners. They are going to sound like beginners. But they acted like professionals and they were amazing.’”


Kallevig hopes one day to bring her SGUB advanced students to a music festival. Meanwhile, she encourages survivors not only to sing and strum but also to compose songs. One collaborative effort, which has a 12-bar blues structure, is “Chande Jabo” or “Let’s Go to the Moon.”

Click here to download a PDF of “Let’s Go to the Moon” sheet music. Courtesy Laurie Kallevig.

The three-story, walled house in Kolkata is not only the home to the SGUB project, but also home to Kallevig, who lives in the shelter when she teaches there. “For now, it’s my base. I don’t know that I am committed there for the rest of the project, but it was really valuable to have that first year there and be welcomed back [the second year] and get the cooperation and the support.”

Since finishing her 2016 teaching stint at the Sanlaap shelter, Kallevig has been fundraising for SGUB to support her third stint, beginning in January 2017. (The group accepts tax-deductible donations through its website, As for recruiting other ukulele teachers, Kallevig is focusing on giving her advanced students the opportunity. “I have girls at Sanlaap that are leading practice sessions and beginner classes. Ideally, I would hire these girls to do it.”

Laurie Kallevig thrives from direct contact with survivors and does not want to manage SGUB from an office. Every time she sees a student confidently strum a new song, every time she tells survivors that their performance was awesome, she is confirming the power of music to uplift. “Music can be a powerful tool in restoring wholeness and building hope for the future,” says Kallevig. “My main goal is to show the survivors love—and the ukulele is a fabulous little vehicle to deliver that love.”

A Survivor’s Prayer

Kallevig wrote this meditative affirmation to begin each class with her students. It is followed by a moment of silence before the group begins to play.

Ami bud’dhim?n hoi.                                       I am intelligent.
Ami shahoshi hoi.                                             I am brave.
Ami eta korte?pare.                                         I can do this.
Prabhu,amake shahajo karun. Amen.     Lord, please help me. Amen.


This version of the feature corrects the following from the print version: The correct spelling of the name of the founder of the Survivor Girl Ukulele Band is Laurie Kallevig, not Kallewig, as it appeared in print. At the time of publication, she was 54 years old, not 63.