This weekend, Raffi comes to town supporting a new album and longstanding principles.
In 1996, Raffi Cavoukian was struck from his horse on the road to Damascus. For nearly 30 years, the onetime folk singer had been Canada’s most beloved children’s entertainer—the poet laureate of beluga whales, the gourmand of oopples and boo-noo-noos, and the first songwriter who dared use a banana as a phone. For decades, Cavoukian—I mean, Raffi (let’s cut the journalistic formalities in this case, please) prided himself on being a socially conscious entertainer, declining endorsement deals that he felt exploited his young following. But in an instant, his free-form philosophy crystallized in two words.
“It’s something that came to me in 1997 in a vision that woke me up from a sound sleep at six o’clock in the morning on a Sunday,” he remembers. “It was like someone just handed me a gift and said, ‘Here—you should have a new philosophy to work with and develop, and it should be called Child Honouring.’ That’s really how it felt: it was a golden, luminous moment in which I thought I was being given something.”
Raffi has developed the Child Honouring concept ever since. In 1999, he wrote a three-paragraph “Covenant for Honouring Children,” stating, “Children are created whole, endowed with innate intelligence, with dignity and wonder, worthy of respect.” In 2000, he expanded the concept to nine “Child Honouring Principles” (respectful love, diversity, caring community, conscious parenting, emotional intelligence, nonviolence, safe environments, sustainability, and ethical commerce). He wrote and edited books on children’s education (including Child Honouring: How to Turn This World Around, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama!), and founded a B.C.-based education nonprofit, the Centre for Child Honouring—a centre whose vision of “child honouring” extends to advocating for environmental protection, human rights, and Internet safety.
“The Centre for Child Honouring acquired the slogan ‘Respecting Earth and Child,’ so even in our slogan we make the link,” he says. “I talk about Child Honouring being an integrated vision, an integrated philosophy that connects the health of children to the health of our planet, because the planet is their home. I think for anybody who wants to understand the connections, they’re all there.”
So consumed was Raffi by his education and advocacy work that Canada’s most famous children’s entertainer disappeared from concert stages for a decade. He has often talked about having turned down an offer from the producers of Shrek to turn “Baby Beluga” into an animated movie because of two deal breakers: the film would be marketed directly to children, and it would spawn merchandise. Imagine turning down Shrek money. You’ve got to hand it to Raffi: he’s the real deal.
On November 22, Raffi will appear at Roy Thomson Hall for two “#BelugaGrads Family Concerts”—“Beluga Grads” being his affectionate name for the children who grew up with his songs, most famously, “Baby Beluga.” Based on album sales, he estimates he has anywhere between 20 and 50 million Beluga Grads in North America—including this reporter, who once regularly drifted to sleep to the Raffi cassettes in his Teddy Ruxpin tape player. Now I’m a grown man talking to Raffi on the phone, and even though I’ve seldom returned to his discography since graduating kindergarten, there’s something about being spoken to by an important voice from toddlerhood that compresses space and time.
And what a voice it is—gentle and soft, accessible and sometimes playful, but with none of the condescending, sing-songy tone that adults usually affect when they talk to children. Like Fred Rogers, Raffi is an oasis of calm in an otherwise frantic children’s entertainment landscape. Watch his 1985 video A Young Children’s Concert with Raffi and you’ll see children in the audience riveted by his simple renditions of “Down by the Bay” and “Apples and Bananas” (to name two traditional songs of which Raffi has recorded the definitive versions).
“The songs are familiar, the ones that I sing,” he says. “They become the toys that we play with. We come together. I come to the show looking forward to hearing the audience sing. The audience comes looking forward to hearing me sing. So it’s an interesting coming-together of these two elements.
“You might say a Raffi concert is kind of like a Pete Seeger concert in the way that he used to encourage audiences to sing. He was known for that, and I do exactly the same thing. I let the audience know early on in the show that I’m counting on them to be my backup band and my chorus of singers, and they don’t disappoint.”
I ask if he considers himself as a counterpoint to more manic children’s entertainers, but he brushes off the question, saying he doesn’t know who’s out there. But he speaks of his concerns about the overstimulation of the digital age, some of which were articulated in his 2013 cyber-safety book, Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Be4 it Re-Forms Us.
“What you don’t want is for a young child to become dependent on the screen, and this often happens now with parents who are not mindful of screen limits in early years,” he says. “You’ve probably seen it: a child who breaks out in a temper tantrum when you take the screen away at some point. You don’t want that in early childhood. In these days, you want children to have a few summers under their belt. A few summers where the lazy summer passes by slowly. You want that to be an experience that imprints, compared to the hyper-fast, shiny-tech world.”
Perhaps this is the time to mention that Raffi has lately carved a grown-up side-career as an outspoken progressive political commentator. He has written op-eds for the Huffington Post and the Vancouver Observer on education, the environment, and corporate social responsibility, and his politically engaged Twitter feed. He poked his head into the recent Canadian federal election with two implicitly anti-Harper songs, “Vote for Democracy” and “I Want My Canada Back.” “I was relieved that a dark chapter in Canada’s political history is over,” he says. “The person responsible for systematic abuses of democracy for a number of years is no longer in power, and his party is not in power.”
He plans to step up his political involvement, including campaigning against Christy Clark’s Liberal government in British Columbia (which he describes as “a very corporate-minded government, not at all there to hear the will of the people”) and by introducing democracy education at the Centre for Child Honouring. “I remember in school, I had civics classes—that’s what they were called. And I learned about a sense of duty, and I still remember that that made an impression on me—‘Oh, we have a duty.’ I think we can teach kids from a young age to take an interest. I want to call my initiative ‘Deep Democracy,’ in which we learn about what a healthy democracy needs, and what can be an obstruction to democratic processes.
“The United Nations convention of the rights of the child has three tenets. The three core tenants are provision, protection, and participation. And participation is all about children participating in social life, and that they have a right to participate. One of the most moving rights in the convention is that children have the right to know that they have rights. So you might say children have the right to know about the kind of government that they’ll grow up to participate in.” I ask Raffi if he considers himself an optimist. “Pessimism is a luxury we can’t afford,” he says.
In 2002, Raffi began a decade-long absence from live performing to concentrate on his Child Honouring initiatives, during which time he became surely one of the only TedX speakers to break into song. “I didn’t say, ‘I think I’ll not do shows for 10 years.’ But at that time I felt I’d done so much in children’s entertainment that I thought it was time to develop the child honouring philosophy.” But the itch to perform became too great, and now he’s on the road again, reviving old standards like “Baby Beluga,” “Bananaphone,” and more for yet another generation of kids. January 15 will also see the release of his latest album, Owl Singalong (the title track was recorded with real owl hoots).
“I actually wondered if I could still do it. You don’t assume anything when you work with children. You want to make sure you’re giving it your best. And to my delight, and the audience’s delight, I still could do it. And they recognized me when I came out on the stage—given that my face has changed over the years from what it looks like from the concert videos that they still watch. That’s a different-looking Raffi.
“The recordings themselves seem to be so popular. By some luck, by hard work, by a combination of the two, I made some music that got recorded that doesn’t age. It seems to be ever new to a new generation of three-year-olds, and it doesn’t matter to those three-year-olds that the recording was made 40 years ago. To them, it’s fresh.”
Raffi will perform at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday, November 22, at 1:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.