Crossing East: Surviving Pol Pot, with Music Cambodian musician Daran Kravanh survived the "killing fields" and genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime, with the help of an unlikely ally: an accordion. Being a musician kept him alive during the brutal antil-Western genocide.
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Crossing East: Surviving Pol Pot, with Music

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Crossing East: Surviving Pol Pot, with Music

Crossing East: Surviving Pol Pot, with Music

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

`I cannot tell you how or why I survived. I do not know myself.' So begins the book about musician Daran Kravanh. The book is called "Music Through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia." The author, Bree Lafreniere, met him when she working with refugees.

Ms. BREE LAFRENIERE (Author, "Music Through the Dark"): There's often stories that I really wanted to keep for my memory, so I would just write them on a piece of paper and put them in my desk. But when I met Daran, one day he told me a story that made me cry and shake for three days, and I could not get that story out of my mind.

BRAND: Daran Kravanh still cannot bring himself to read the book about his life in Cambodia's Killing Fields. Producer Dmae Roberts visited him in Tacoma, Washington, and has this story.

DMAE ROBERTS reporting:

Daran Kravanh came from a musical family that totalled 11 people. He was immediately drawn to the accordion and took to it instantly.

Mr. DARAN KRAVANH (Musician): First, I touched the key but no sound at all. And then I said, `Oh, he had to put this accordion on his shoulder to make...'

(Soundbite of accordion)

Mr. KRAVANH: `...that way, that sound.' And then I start to play and then...

(Soundbite of Kravanh playing accordion)

Mr. KRAVANH: You know, my brother, the oldest one, he play drum, he play violin, flute and tro. Tro, that's the name of the Cambodian violin. My other brother, he played guitar, drum. Another brother play--a younger one played guitar. So we had a band play together with the--just for fun, for the family.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

ROBERTS: But Daran's family came to an abrupt and tragic end when the Khmer Rouge took over on April 19th, 1975. Daran was 21 years old and going to college when the tanks with soldiers rolled into the cities. They rounded up people and took them into the fields and forests to start a new agrarian life. Anyone educated, professional or capitalist--meaning Westernized--was executed. Daran, who was wearing a shirt and tie, was immediately singled out.

Mr. KRAVANH: They said, `Who's a doctor?' That man, he raise a hand. And, `Professor, raise your hand.' `Soldier, raise your hand.' And then they say, `Student,' and then I raise my hand.

ROBERTS: One of his brothers was with him at the time, and Daran appealed to the soldiers to keep them together, but they refused.

Mr. KRAVANH: Seven soldier come to escort us to the forest. And that time, we start to know that we must be killed. And so we just walk, walk, walk, walk until the person--I think he's a doctor--he just move his head and then they shoot him.

(Soundbite of Kravanh imitating gunshot)

ROBERTS: The surviving 10 men knew they had to do something. Together, they overpowered the soldiers and ran into the Cambodian forest and tried to survive in the wilds toward the Thailand border. They had nothing to hunt with or anything to keep them warm when it rained. Each day, they sent Daran, the youngest and most able, to climb the tallest tree to look out for wild animals or, worse, the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Even then, Daran was composing music, finding inspiration from nature.

Mr. KRAVANH: You know, in the forest, there are lot of snake, cobra or tiger, elephant and different kind of wild animal. So ...(unintelligible) easy to live in the forest, but also you see the beautiful thing in the forest. I can see the birds, I can see the mountain, I can see everything except the faces of my family. So that's why I create that song in my pain at that time I call the "Top of the Tree."

(Soundbite of "Top of the Tree")

ROBERTS: One by one, the men died of starvation or were killed by predators or soldiers they encountered. At one point, Daran tried to cross the border to Thailand through the minefields. Daran to this day believes the animals came to save his life. A deer ran in front of his path and was blown up, then a rabbit. Rather than risk the minefields, Daran surrendered himself to the Khmer Rouge and was put to work in the camps. There, he farmed without tools.

Mr. KRAVANH: You know, even the corn--I had to steal my own corn that I grow. And then they not allow you to do that, so that's why--you cannot possess anything. You must be killed if you steal that.

ROBERTS: Daran worked in the Killing Fields through the entire reign of the Khmer Rouge until 1978. He says he wouldn't have survived if something miraculous had not happened.

Mr. KRAVANH: Go the forest a little bit and pick the leaf of the tree to eat to fill up my stomach, and I just saw the accordion under the stem of the tree. And then I said, `Ooh. Who is this?' Or `Who's it belong to? Who's accordion belong to?' And then I said, `Ooh, I want to touch.' And then I'm really surprised. And then I said, `Wow! That's a dream really come true.' I just think about that and an accordion come. And did God provide this instrument to me or what? And then I to--I just play it a little and...

(Soundbite of Kravahn playing accordion)

Mr. KRAVANH: Just that song, and then the Khmer Rouge come right away. And then he said, `Hey, who touched my accordion?'

ROBERTS: Daran says the soldier told him to keep playing, and at the end gave him that accordion. The Khmer Rouge let him play. The music drew people from neighboring camps. Children came, and then other musicians. The Khmer Rouge gave them instruments so they could play for festivals that glorified the new regime.

Mr. KRAVANH: Every kid, all the adult people, they come to see me. That's how I become famous in that time, famous in the hell time, in the--and the person said, `Ooh. You play that? I know how to play tro.' That's a Cambodian violin. And another one, they said, `Yeah, I know how to play toque'--a flute--and then chapey; that's means a guitar. And then I said, `Right. Get together.' And then also Mr. Swizenheur(ph)--he's a famous songwriter--and, yeah, he played mandolin. And then he died; they kill him.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

ROBERTS: The Khmer Rouge didn't need any reason to kill. Each day after a meager meal of rice, Daran would play his accordion and wonder if any of his family was still alive. He continued working and starving until January 7th, 1979, when the Cambodian leader, Pol Pot, fled the country to escape the military offensive from Vietnam. Pol Pot also left three million of his people dead and four million starving. The Khmer Rouge soldiers just said `Go home.'

Daran walked the long road to his family home. All that was left was a gatepost, the cement steps and one older brother. He points to a photo of his 11 family members posing on the steps.

Mr. KRAVANH: When I go there, I just hug that post--and then I cry. I just see the post, but I didn't see my family. It still have the steps, the post and my brother. That's all. See this picture of my family? All of them were killed.

ROBERTS: Daran lived under the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia till 1984. He then escaped into Thailand and lived in a refugee camp for four years before coming to America. Daran says when he gets together with his Cambodian musician friends, they rarely talk about what he calls `the hell time.'

Mr. KRAVANH: If you ask them why you don't want to talk about that, they said, `Too much suffering.' That's more than enough for them. They don't want to share with you because they don't want you to suffer like them. So that's why even my own story, I don't want to tell you to make you suffer. But you say--wondered, `How do you survive? Several civil wars and Killing Field and minefield and refugee camp and'--here. I'm here. I crossed everything. I cannot believe how can I survive, but I'm here and I'm still Daran.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

BRAND: The profile of Daran Kravanh was produced by Dmae Roberts for the Crossing East Asian-American history series. For more information about "Music Through the Dark," the book or the CD, go to

(Soundbite of accordion music)

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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