An Accordion Saves a Man's Life

Cheri Thurston

In late 1994, CAPA received a letter from Seattle member Janice I. Bogren, who wrote, "I'll bet we're the only city in the U.S. to feature an accordion on the front page of its major newspaper," she wrote. "And the story is pretty fascinating, too."

Daran Kravanh

Well, that was an understatement. The story was, in my opinion, absolutely amazing. Seattle Times reporter Alex Tizon wrote about a Cambodian refugee who owes his life to the accordion. If it hadn't been for the accordion, Daran Kravanh would have ended up in a mass grave like his parents and seven siblings. 

When he was growing up in Cambodia, Kravanh began playing the accordion at age six. He was part of a large family that was eventually scattered and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, which butchered two million Cambodian people during the 1970s. One day Kravanh was working on a Khmer Rouge logging crew, and he was on the verge of collapse. He stumbled upon, of all things, an accordion sitting on a tree stump. He picked it up.

The accordion belonged to a Khmer Rouge soldier, who discovered Kravanh. Here the Times reporter pointed out the danger to Kravanh:

During its 3 1/2 year reign, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed government leaders, teachers, professionals, artists and musicians—anyone with education or training who might threaten the Khmer Rouge world view...But instead of killing Kravanh, the soldier asked if he knew how to play.

Kravanh played for him and was soon made part of a special musicians' group. He had his own accordion and enjoyed special favors, like extra food—no small favor when workers were dying by the thousands from starvation, disease and mistreatment. The musicians played for Khmer Rouge gatherings, but they were only permitted to play Khmer Rouge songs.

Unfortunately, someone decided that Kravanh had been playing unpatriotic songs, and an executioner was sent to kill Kravanh. The executioner arrived as Kravanh was playing his accordion. Kravanh explains what happened:

He listened until the end of the song. Then the most extraordinary thing happened. This brutal man looked into my eyes and ... said to me, "I am a Khmer Rouge soldier. I am trained to kill my own parents if I am ordered to, so why can't I kill you?

His life was spared.

Kravanh's gripping story is told in the book Music Through the Dark, by Bree Lefreniere.

Read the entire Seattle Times article here.