If you know anything at all about Raffi Cavoukian — simply “Raffi” to most of the world — it’s probably this: He’s the mellifluous voice and playful spirit behind “Baby Beluga” and is capable of melting hearts of all ages. And while that’s all true and important, there’s quite a bit more to this 67-year-old Canadian troubadour. Born in Cairo and emigrating to Toronto when he was 10 with his parents, brother, and sister — now a portrait photographer and privacy champion, respectively — Raffi discovered his joy of music while singing with his Armenian church choir as a kid. At 16, he got his first guitar, tried to make it as a folksinger “on the scale of Paul Simon or James Taylor,” he says, and then was shepherded toward a decidedly younger fan base by his then-wife, a kindergarten teacher, who clearly had the right idea. Now, more than 20 albums later, Raffi is announcing a brand-new one — Owl Singalong, a typically joyous mix of originals and covers due out in January (you can pre-order here and here), along with an animated video that’s being exclusively premiered by Yahoo Parenting (above). But the musician is also balancing roles as a children’s advocate, environmental and civic activist, and voracious tweeter, from his home in British Columbia. This week he spoke with Yahoo Parenting about it all.
You stopped making kids’ music for more than a decade while working on other projects, and then came back last year with Love Bug. Can you tell us about your latest?
Love Bug was my first children’s album in 12 years. Now I jokingly say, “Owl Singalong is my first children’s album in 12 months!” I really wanted to do another one while I was in the groove. And I had so much fun. [There were] so many wonderful surprises for me, like [folk classic] “Somos El Barco,” which is a beautiful song, in Spanish as well as English, and Pete Seeger’s song “Abiyoyo,” which I’ve always wanted to cover — plus about 10 originals and original adaptations, like, [sings] “The more we sing together, the happier we’ll be… The more we read together…”
It’s Raffi! (Photo: Concord Music Group)
You’ve been at this since 1976, when your first children’s album came out. How do you keep finding kid-themed inspiration?
[In silly, deep character voice] Well, Beth, I’m going to tell you something: It’s just the big kid inside of me, OK? [Laughs] Life’s magic is all around me. It’s everywhere I look. And I have young children in my life — I have an adoptive family here, friends, and we’ve really taken to each other. It’s a mother and her two young girls and I see them quite frequently, so I just see the magic on a regular basis.
You never had children of your own, and have said that it’s not something that ever interested you. How so?
It’s quite simple, actually. My wife and I talked about it way back when, and we noticed that neither one of us seemed to have the inner urge to have our own kids. Clearly, we loved kids — she was a very compassionate kindergarten teacher, and I was doing these children’s concerts all over the place. We [decided we were not going to] have kids because we were supposed to have them. We just went with our inner knowing, and respected each other’s inner voice.
Do you ever feel you’re living in the shadow of your greatest hits?
Not at all, actually. I’m living in the light of it as it keeps playing on in me — and when I play it live it comes alive again, because I have 1,500 people singing with me. They’re coming out in great numbers these days, which is really something.
You also have an impressive 34,400 Twitter followers, which paid off for you during the recent Canadian elections: You sang a ditty about voting and it blew up on YouTube, and you tweeted so often to the folks who grew up on your music — #Belugagrads — that Twitter found you to be among its most active users during the election campaign. How do #Belugagrads figure into your political message?
I consider what I do to be “democracy defending,” or “democracy championing.” I don’t consider it political as such because it’s nonpartisan. We had a political leader [Stephen Harper] who was a rogue leader — a misleader — and for years he abused democracy and assaulted a number of our democratic traditions. That doesn’t sit very well with me. I love my country. So I just thought, that’s it — every single day I’m going to tweet about what this is really about, which is ethics and the lack of it in his party and his being. And I’m proud to have played a small part in turning this around.
How does it relate to what seems to be your biggest passion, children’s issues?
When you’re a children’s advocate, you want the best for children, and that doesn’t just mean in their living room or nursery school. Our lives are not in silos — we live in interconnected circles of belonging. You certainly want for your children a future where, if we have a choice, climate change would not be a 2-degree warming on the globe, it would be a 1.5-degree, because a 2-degree warmed world will not be a good world for our kids or grandchildren to live in. That’s just one example of why it really matters that we get civically engaged. Democracy needs civic-minded people.
The new album. (Art: Concord Music Group)
It’s an idea that’s central to your Centre for Child Honouring, an organization you founded in 2010. Can you explain it?
It’s an integrated vision of how to create the best society. Our slogan is “respecting earth and child,” and that captures the picture in one’s mind. If you’re serious about respecting children and honoring them, you must also be equally serious about respecting the earth and honoring her life support systems on which we depend daily — you can’t separate the two. There’s also an emphasis on what I call the foundational years … the formative years, forming nothing less than how it feels to be human. So you want positive, life-affirming first impressions of life. How we treat and regard the very young is the best way of creating humane, and therefore sustainable, societies.
Another one of your big passions is advocating for limited screen time for the very young. Why is this important?
It’s quite simple. I mean, before [the Internet], we were talking about screen limits in terms of television, about children not being glued to “the set,” as we used to call it. With these mobile screens it becomes even more important, especially in their formative years: They need interpersonal play and free play to excite the theater of imagination in their minds. They need to play with the real elements of life, not a shiny screen. They need to touch the elements. That’s why puddles appeal to them so much — and mud and finger paints, and all those ways that you can leave your mark and make an impression, literally, in the real world.
And the concern, of course, is these devices are so seductive, and that the electronic images go so fast that it’s a different world than the real world of a child. So before the child’s even had a few long, lazy summers — the rhythm of a summer to be imprinted in its being — you’ve got this faster-than-fast device hogging the attention span. There’s a loss there, so you have to really be mindful of what the true gifts are in the early years … in the real world, with active elements and people, before you have a lot of interaction with the screen, which is a simulation of life. The technology is so simple that you don’t have to start it young, you can learn it at any age. What you can’t do at any age is have your formative needs met; they are time-sensitive, so the child can build on those positive first impressions of life. Those who know children the best — pediatricians — say no screen time until the child is 2, and there are reasons for that. Parents need to understand the reasons, and heed those words.
You have an incredibly special connection with the very young. Why do you think that is?
One doesn’t really know exactly what the answer is. But if I were to hint at one, I’d say it’s a combination of things: It’s the musicianship that I acquired as a folksinger, and my sense of humor … which you can hear [as I ad-lib] in “Willoughby Wallaby Woo.” More than that, I think it was probably the tone of the music — songs are presented in a playful tone, they meet the child halfway — and I think young children feel befriended by that tone. So there’s quite a warm bond.
What’s your favorite Raffi song?
[In another silly character voice] Beth, how can you do that to me? [Laughs] There’s a number I love equally, “One Light, One Sun” is a favorite, although I don’t sing it in concert. Certainly, the well-known ones like “Banana Phone” — I don’t know how I make that sound when I go [toot toot!]. It’s like on Owl Singalong [toot toot!], it sounds like a train whistle! Clearly, songs like “Baby Beluga” and “All I Really Need” are favorites, but I also love singing “This Land Is Your Land.”
I’ve read that you wrote “Baby Beluga” after you were horrified to learn about the St. Lawrence River’s declining beluga whale population in the 1980s. Is there more to the story?
I wanted to make the song positive and joyful, because I didn’t want a “Save the Whales” lament. And I knew that if you cared for something and loved it, of course you’d want to protect it. When I was writing it, I remember I said to [my then-wife] Deb, “I’m thinking of making it about a young whale,” and she said, “Oh, make it about a baby whale,” and I said, “Why?” and she said, “Children love babies.” Boy, was she right about that!
You’ve consistently refused all commercial endorsement offers and have been vocal about not marketing directly to children. Why has this been an important stance for you?
When you target children for respect, you wouldn’t exploit them, would you? When you value them and honor them and want them to have the best in life, why would you then advertise some products to a child — when the child is so young that the child can’t make up his or her own mind about it? That’s exploitation. It’s unethical, I would never do it, and I’ve never done it. I love and respect children too much. Probably if there were, say, a “Baby Beluga” film — and I’ve thought about this a lot — it would have a circle of investors who are looking not for just monetary returns, but social and environmental returns of making a conscious family film and marketing it in a whole new ethical way. I still hope it happens one day.
I’d love to see what that looks like.
[Laughs heartily] Me too! If you win the lottery, uh, call me.