Daran Kravanh: Music through the Dark (Accordion in the Killing Fields)
Most accordionists do not have a political platform, and very few seriously propose to run for prime minister of their country. Thankfully, most are not inspired by surviving genocide. Daran Kravanh’s peaceful, happy childhood and family life in Cambodia was destroyed by the coming of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Almost all of his family were killed in the next four years, his mother, father and seven siblings. Kravanh was a 20 year old college student and musician – both of which would earn him a death-sentence under the new rulers who sought to purge the country of all intellectual elites. He fled into the mountains and tried unsuccessfully to escape into Thailand but was blocked by mine-fields on the border. He had no choice but to return and try to survive in Kampuchea, the name the Khmer Rouge gave to Cambodia. Kravanh was sent to a communal plantation where the people were worked to death. He saw murder, brutality, rape, and torture along with massive starvation. Over a million people were killed.
I interviewed Cambodian-American Daran Kravanh on the Accordion Noir Radio show this week. You can download the interview directly by clicking here,
He tells the story of how one day while looking for food in the forest he found an accordion on the stump of a tree. He had learned to play as a child and picked it up and played a few notes. Then a soldier came and said, “Who is playing my accordion? Do you know how to play that?” Any answer could have earned him a death sentence. The soldier asked Kravanh to play though, and he allowed him live. Eventually the soldier gave Kravanh the accordion.
“It had a hole in the bellows and seven or eight keys were broken so its sound was a little strange. But it was nonetheless an accordion and I loved it.”
“People began to gather around us just to stand and listen. I thought to myself, “Why do people come to listen to this music when they barely have enough strength to stand? Why don’t they go looking for a potato or a few leaves to eat?” And I wondered, why did I not do the same? It seemed I was finding strength in the music. … So I played my music and survived one more day.”
[ All quotes are adapted from: Music through the Dark, Bree Lafreniere (biography of Daran Kravanh]]
Kravanh relates the horrors of the Killing Fields, where starvation and violence took so many. And contrasts it with the paradox of humans in the worst situations unable to give up living. Over and over people were faced with death but some continue somehow. He himself learned that his own family were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and he wanted to die with them. “It was at that moment that I became a ghost.”
Then a child appeared and asked, “Uncle, can you play your accordion tonight? We want to dance.”
“No, little one,” I said, “I do not have the strength.” She left and returned to me with a tiny handful of bamboo shoots and put them up to my mouth. I ate them and she asked, “Now can you play?”
She was tiny and sweet like my sister Raksmey. I looked at her for a short time, then said, “Yes, I will play for you, little child. For you I will play.” I picked up my accordion and I played. The music kept death from me for one more day.
Finally, a shift in power brought new Khmer Rouge soldiers, and he was warned that they would kill him.
My body was so thin and light and numb it did not seem to belong to me. To comfort myself I played a song on my accordion. I sat in the doorway of my house and played my accordion all evening and into the night. I did not stop to eat. I felt no hunger. I felt nothing. I watched the moonlight moving around the room, the shadows coming and going.
I softened the voice of my accordion and listened. I heard footsteps. I knew I was going to die. But I kept playing my accordion while thinking of my mother and father. The sound of the soldiers’ footsteps grew closer, then stopped. I knew it was too late. My music had revealed me.
Seeing me there with my accordion must have surprised them because they did not shoot. I looked at their faces and into their eyes. Though my music had saved me many times in the preceding years, the icy cruelty of these men terrified me and I thought nothing could save me. I played to the end of my song.
The soldiers looked at each other and one of them ordered me to play. But I was so frightened and shook so much, I could not. He hit me with his gun and said, “Play or I will kill you!” So I started to play a song. The soldiers were pleased at the sound. They smiled and laid down their guns. They sat down surrounding me in a circle. After a time the soldiers grew sleepy, gathered up their guns, and left without saying anything more. For a few moments I believed I had once more been saved from death.
After a few minutes, one of the soldiers returned. He came close to me and said, “I’ve been ordered to kill you.”
I looked up at him. He was a young man but he looked old.
I began to play my accordion. If I was going to die, I wanted to die playing my accordion. I was no longer angry or afraid. I played that song with all the joy I had ever felt.
The soldier did not shoot me. He listened until the end of the song. Then he said in a small, quiet voice, “Will you teach me to play?”
“Yes,” I said. Yes was all I had left to say.
The soldier laid down his gun and sat beside me. His hands were trembling so badly I helped him touch the keys.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. This man looked deep into my eyes and must have seen himself reflected there because he said, “I am a Khmer Rouge soldier. I am trained to kill my own parents if ordered to. So why can’t I kill you? What stops me from killing you?”
I did not answer because I did not know. We looked at each other in silence and the distance between us disappeared. The soldier then turned and left.
Kravanh lived to see the Khmer Rouge fall in 1979, and he eventually sought refuge in the United States, where he works with new refugees and for justice for the Cambodian people at home and abroad. He is running for the second time for Prime Minister of Cambodia in 2013, facing continued political corruption with the current government still containing many members with ties to the Khmer Rouge.
During the time of the Killing Fields he found an accordion on the stump of a tree, an accordion that became a gift from an enemy. It was out of tune and broken, but it gave him and others peace and pleasure in the harshest of worlds. And it saved his life, where so many were lost.
Its sound gave me a peace I had not felt since I was a small child in my father’s arms in a Cambodia without war. That accordion sang to me with a raspy old human voice, a voice wounded but alive.
To download my interview with Daran you can visit:
(We hope this helps in the work to bring the accordion into the light.)
Another radio documentary about Kravanh was on the Crossing East series about Asian immigration on NPR, narrated by Margret Cho and George Takei.
To find copies of Daran Kravanh’s book, Music Through the Dark, written by Bree Lafreeniere, you may best search online.