Seattle's Child

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Mom interview with raffi

Beloved children's singer and songwriter Raffi will appear in Seattle in September to a sold out Paramount Theater. Photo courtesy Raffi.

My bananaphone moment: An interview with Raffi

Raffi's new album "Penny Penguin" out on April 19

There is something so bewitching about childhood heroes. Mine creates musical magic with his familiar voice and lyrics about kindness, inclusion and, yes, silliness. His exuberant songs have sold some 15 million records. He has inspired, entertained and captivated tens of millions of young fans for nearly 50 years. His concerts are legendary.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name is Raffi. 

Spritely at 75, Raffi will return to Seattle September 23, where the beloved songwriter will perform for a sold-out audience at the Paramount Theatre.

Raffi has been dubbed “the Beatles of kids’ music” and the “most popular children’s singer in the English-speaking world.” He’s performed for at least one U.S. president and the Dalai Lama. And, in a moment seared in his memory, he sang for Nelson Mandala

“That was quite something, singing for him,” Raffi said of the latter experience. “He stood up and he shook my hand. I thought I was going to faint. It was so beautiful.”

Raffi’s authenticity radiated through the phone (a real one, not a “bananaphone”) when I recently spoke with him. He was at his home on serene Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands off the Vancouver, B.C. coast. He lives there with his 7-year-old “fur baby” Luna — the canine inspiration for 2018’s ‘Luna’s Song.”

Despite his immense fame, Raffi has no illusions of grandeur or inflated ego. His first order of business in our conversation was to ask the names and ages of my children, followed by thoughtful questions about them and me. “We’ll dedicate this little interview to them,” he said, when the picture of our lives had been sufficiently painted. 

A world of Beluga grads

It is this simple, but important, connection to the millions who listen to his music that says all there is to say about Raffi. He cares about the mark he leaves on the world, not accolades.

“Beluga Grads often tell me that my music was the soundtrack of their childhood,” Raffi said. “That’s a tremendous honor. I know that when music is near and dear to us as young kids, we generally won’t lose that feeling. I’m just very grateful to know that my music has an enduring presence in people’s lives.”

If you hadn’t heard it before, the title “Beluga Grad” applies to anyone who listened to Raffi as a kid – folks who know the crazy things that happen “Down By the Bay” or the precise method to “Shake Your Sillies Out.” That means Beluga Grads span from Baby Boomers to Generation Alpha. Though impossible to fully quantify, Raffi estimates that there are “tens of millions” (that’s five generations) of Beluga Grads. 

The Children’s Troubadour

Raffi was born Raffi Cavoukian to an Armenian family in Cairo, Egypt. When he was 10, his family relocated to Toronto, Canada. In 1974, Raffi stumbled into his first gig, a favor to his mother-in-law who asked that he perform at the nursery school she ran.

“There was no market approaching me,” Raffi said, when I asked how performing for children became his career. “Those words don’t really apply. It just sort of emerged. Saying ‘yes’ to an invitation 49 years ago. It grew from there.”

Since that fateful performance, Raffi has released 26 albums, some of which reached gold and platinum status in North America. He’s been nominated for three Grammys, holds four honorary degrees, and received the Order of Canada, the nation’s second-highest honor granted to its notable citizens. 

Raffi’s first — and still most popular — album, Singable Songs for the Very Young, was recorded in a friend’s basement for a few thousand dollars and released in 1976. The singles from that album alone read like the “top five” of children’s hits, even now in 2023, and include kid classics “The More We Get Together”, “Down By the Bay”, “Bumping Up and Down”, “Willoughby Wallaby Woo” and “Mr. Sun”.

“I get the best fan mail,” Raffi said. “They’re usually drawings from young kids, but also parents send me wonderful notes. I just love my fans. I’m so privileged to do this work.”

The song “Baby Beluga,” from the 1980 album of the same name, is perhaps the singer’s most renowned. He was inspired to write the tune in 1979 after an unforgettable encounter with Kavna, a young beluga whale who lived, not in the “deep blue sea”, but at the Vancouver Aquarium until her death in 2012. When asked if he ever tires of singing it, 43 years after its release, his answer was immediate and firm:

“No, I don’t. It’s always a joy,” he said. During the upcoming Seattle concert, he adds, “we’re going to be raising our voices to that beautiful creature once again.”

A Greater Purpose

Raffi has said in the past that “Baby Beluga” was a way to set Kavna free. It was also a way to explore his growing concern for the environment. Raffi has been an active climate change advocate since 1989 when he really began using his remarkable song-writing ability and telltale folk sound to spread a deeper, more pressing message, one that strayed from his light, “singable” songs meant for children. In 1990, the musical artist who taught troves of children to “Brush Your Teeth,” released his first album geared towards adults and climate advocacy: “Evergreen, Everblue.” And, in 2019, he released a song called “Young People Marching” which he dedicated to Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist who grabbed the world’s attention with her impassioned plea for climate change mitigation.

“We need climate action commensurate to the feel of the threat,” Raffi said. “Every family that cares, every parent that cares to secure the future for our children, we need to be active. People ask me if I’m hopeful. My answer to them is, ‘I’m active.’ That’s the point.”

The life of a children’s troubadour

In 1999, Raffi released his autobiography. “The Life of a Children’s Troubadour recounts the highs and lows of his life and career. The book also reiterates his most valued beliefs about the role we must play in protecting his core audience: children. 

As it turns out, his music is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the shiny, engaging melodies has always been the generous, respectful thinking that has guided Raffi through his nearly five decades in children’s entertainment. 

Covenant for Honoring Children

Raffi’s 1999 autobiography, “The Life of a Children’s Troubadour,” recounts the highs and lows of his life and career and outlines the artist’s vision for protecting children. He also founded The Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring after “nothing short of a vision” woke the artist from a sound sleep. 

“I knew in that luminous moment that that was the name of a unique social change revolution with the universal child at the heart of it,” Raffi said. “The infant of every culture is the same physiological being regardless of skin color, ethnicity, the family’s social standing, economic conditions. Isn’t that the most marvelous and uniting news ever? It should be sung from the rooftops!” The organization offers online courses and resources for parents, caregivers, educators, or anyone inspired by Raffi’s “Covenant for Honoring Children.” 

Unlike most people who find success, Raffi never “sold out”. He refused to sign advertising deals and never peddled merchandise. His vision for a better world meant he would not commercially or financially exploit children for profit. 

“Why would I ever sell out?

To put things in perspective, at the height of “Baby Beluga”, which intersected with the rise of children’s programming, toy marketing and 80s extravagant consumerism, Raffi turned down all offers – lucrative ones at that – to commercialize his incredibly popular song. There was no “Baby Beluga” film franchise or television show for no reason other than Raffi was morally and ethically opposed to direct advertising to children. 

“My work is rooted in love and respect for young children,” Raffi said. “Why would I ever sell out? It wasn’t even a choice. If you’re doing really well with your music, doesn’t that behoove one to stick with one’s principles? It goes with respect and love.”

A hero’s mark

Not all heroes wear capes. Instead, some live in remote parts of Canada with their canine companions. They live the life they preach. And they live in the hearts and memories of those who have loved them and listened to their message. 

More at Seattle’s Child:

Caspar Babypants, children’s musician and a true Seattle treasure

Author Profile: The Day I Followed Nina Laden

About the Author

Candice McMillan

Candice McMillan has been writing about film for more than 10 years. Since becoming a mom to her two daughters, she’s had to hang up her affinity for horror films, catering to the two smallest critics who prefer shows about rescue dogs and a family of pigs. Candice has degrees in journalism and film critical studies from USC, and her favorite children’s film is a toss-up between “Anastasia” and “A Goofy Movie.”