The kids music icon releases a new album this week. Remarkably, he’s every bit as on-message—in the best possible sense of the term—as he was back in 2002 when BLURT’s editor interviewed him. If I’m happy and I know it, do I clap my hands? Heck yeah!
BY FRED MILLS
It’s time for me to come out of the closet. I am… a Raffi fan. Have been for more than a decade. Okay, I know what you’re thinking… “Bananaphone,” “Baby Beluga,” etc. Yeuchh. Kids music. Worse, kids music that doesn’t rock. Why on earth would anybody want to listen to Raffi’s simplistic, sanitized pabulum when we’ve got the likes of Dan Zanes, Farmer Jason (Ringenberg), Uncle Rock, even They Might Be Giants who not only rock (and even play the stray rock covers), they inject plenty of wink-nod ironic humor for the adults?
But work with me here. Or click over to another page, I don’t care. This morning I turned on Weekend Edition and NPR’s Tamara Keith was in the middle of an interview with the 66-year old Raffi Cavoukian, the Cairo-born, Toronto-raised folksinger-turned-children’s troubadour. Called by some “the Bruce Springsteen of kid’s music,” Raffi has been ubiquitous since debuting in 1976 with Singable Songs for the Very Young, going on to notch platinum status with several of his albums—notably, 1994’s Bananaphone—and concert videos. (Of note: the ’76 album was actually preceded by a straight folk release aimed at the adult audience, 1975’s Good Luck Boy.) Turns out that this week he’s releasing his first album of all-new children’s music in nearly 12 years. Titled Love Bug and issued by Rounder, its product description at Amazon reads thusly:
“A collection of 16 songs, this thoughtfully crafted body of work engages children in a broad range of fundamental topics including love, nature, playtime, chores, and teamwork music to charm the whole family! Raffi has long been a passionate advocate for children and a sustainable world for today’s youth. Love Bug resounds with Child Honouring principles and affirms Raffi’s place as the legendary children’s artist we all know him to be.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Same-old, same-old from the dude. I, however, find it remarkably reassuring that after a decade-plus layoff (and in truth, he’s stayed pretty busy during his so-called “hiatus”), he can remain consistent and true to his personal artistic, aesthetic and philosophical standards. Here is a man who walks it like he talks it, having worked as a children’s advocate (particularly regarding the online sector), an environmental activist (such as in the global warming debate) and an anti-consumerist (he famously turns down all commercial and product endorsement deals). And he sings it like he talks it, too, with his music encouraging kids to be compassionate, to honor the planet they live on, and—most important—to let their natural inquisitiveness always guide them to find the beauty and magic of life itself.
Listening to the NPR interview, it was clear to me that Raffi, indeed, is the same man that he’s always been. Older, certainly, and perhaps not as wildly popular as he once was, back when the childrens music market wasn’t nearly as crowded. But essentially unchanged. In fact, listening to his lilting speaking voice, his infectious laugh (he even did a subtle but convincing Bob Dylan impression) and the way he remained on-message throughout the interview even when the interviewer tried to throw him a gentle curveball by comparing him to Tom Waits, I flashed back to 2002 when I also interviewed the man.
The occasion was for an upcoming Seattle concert. I was a regular contributor to the Seattle Weekly, and as these things happen, at the time I was also a relatively new parent whose 21-month old son was an unabashed Raffi fan. One big fave of his was the Bananaphone CD, no doubt due to the fact that each mid-afternoon my wife or I would come into his room to wake him from his nap and we’d play the song “Bananaphone,” dancing and chanting softly and miming the banana-to-the-ear schtick, prompting him to giggle with delight and sing along. (Once I actually brought a real banana in there, much to his consternation. I’m mildly bummed over the fact that we do not have a photo of yours truly with a banana pressed tightly against the side of my head.) So during the bi-weekly brainstorming session with my Seattle Weekly editor, when he casually mentioned that Raffi was coming to town, I casually mentioned back that it might make for an interesting feature, a “fun” departure from the usual indie rock band fare that the paper covered.
An interview was summarily arranged, and that is how I found myself on the phone one afternoon, talking to Raffi. It all went smoothly, and while I suspect he gave me a lot of stock answers to what were familiar questions, he radiated the type of warmth and sincerity that no doubt had been endearing him to his pint-sized audiences for years. I mentioned above that he stayed on-message during the NPR interview: he did likewise with me, even when I attempted my own journalistic curveball of sorts.
Thinking that maybe I could get Raffi to “break character” momentarily, I commented that he consistently delivered a message of wholesome positivity. So was he ever tempted to throw a bone to the parents, like a semi-risque pun or an inside joke or even a knowing wink—something that would definitely go over the heads of the children but would give the parents a quick chuckle?
“Oh, no!” he quickly replied, and for a second I thought he was almost offended I would ask such a thing, or at least concerned that anyone might think it. “I would never knowingly throw in an inappropriate lyric. But there are puns, and the beautiful thing about punning is that a pun is completely innocent. It has double meanings, but no sexual innuendos, no, never.”
Fair enough. What follows is my Raffi story from 2002, and just in case any of you are wondering why on earth you have read this far, all I can say is that there are a lot of big, scary, unexpected things in the world that can make life seem like a very tough slog indeed for young children. To know that there are people out there aiming to provide a reliable and trusting shoulder for the kids to lean on as they make their journey, well… it’s a beautiful thing. Raffi’s one of those people.
Raffi: a rite of passage for parents everywhere. The songwriter inevitably becomes part of the family vernacular once a household begins to transition from simple nursery rhymes to songs with a bit more musical and lyrical substance. Not to slight, say, “A-tisket, a-tasket/ I bought a yellow basket,” but it does have a certain mind-numbing capacity; and while lines like “All around the cobbler’s bench/ The monkey chased the weasel/ The monkey thought it was all good fun/ Pop! goes the weasel” are slightly more complex, they still frustrate at the existential level.
In fact, by some measures, Raffi could be considered downright subversive. His massive popularity, when paired with an unwavering devotion to the interior lives of our children, makes him an ideal vehicle for dissemination of philosophies possibly at odds with those of the Bush administration. On his latest Rounder Records CD, Let’s Play, concepts such as take care of our environment (“Arbutus Baby”), nurture the young ones (“It Takes A Village”) and, most simply but most poignantly, be kind and good (“May There Always Be Sunshine”) are the rule.
Which is why I find myself wanting to speak to Raffi. That, and the hunch that, as a first-time dad, I’m lucky there’s a songwriter like Raffi who makes music my 21-month-old son can relate to but who isn’t compelled to dumb-down the message or climb into a big purple dinosaur suit and giggle like a chimp dosing on helium just to hold my kid’s attention.
Plus, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, there’s something about Raffi that tweaks my inner music-collector geek. For the toddlers in the audience there’s the occasional “Eensy Weensy Spider” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” of course. But Raffi delights in subtler presentations as well. A Celtic/sea-shanty-flavored version of “Yellow Submarine,” for example, highlights Let’s Play, complete with wigged-out background affects that reference the Beatles’ original psychedelic ditty. His adaptation of the traditional spiritual “Down By The Riverside” (on 1994’s Bananaphone) is brilliant as well; it was a mainstay of the ‘60s folk-protest movement thanks to its peace-bearing message (“Gonna lay down my sword and shield/ Down by the riverside/ Ain’t gonna study war no more”). In let’s-attack-Iraq ’02, the song’s required listening.
“It is a mix of things that I’m presenting, so those [nursery rhyme-type] songs have their place,” explains Raffi. “But I don’t think you could stand a whole album of them. You can present songs that are accessible to different listeners depending on how old they are and still make them interesting – for the adult ear as well. It just depends on what clothes you dress them up in.”
Indeed, in the Raffi musical wardrobe is everything from hot-cha-cha Dixieland (the hilarious “Bananaphone” – if Raffi’s the Springsteen of the kid’s set, then that pun-infested, ultra-catchy anthem is his “Born To Run”) to worldbeat (the Afro-pop-flavored Jane Goodall tribute “Jane Jane”) to breezy-swingy guitar jazz (“Let’s Play,” containing the telltale line “Let’s play, come on, on this jazzy Django day!”).
“I’m working at multi layers, and it’s kind of fun do it,” the songwriter continues, “yet it’s not getting in the way of a five-year old enjoying it either. I love innocent humor, which I hope these songs are full of. In ‘Let’s Play’ I had great fun putting in this line: ‘Play’s the thing, a magic ring.’ Because I got to reference Shakespeare and Tolkien in the same line, boom-boom, two classic authors.”
Engaging, witty and generous in conversation, Raffi nevertheless pauses when I raise my “subversive” angle and label him a political activist. (He’s a longtime supporter of children’s rights and pro-environmental causes; most recently, at the Ontario “People and the Planet” conference this past June, he gave a talk entitled “A Child Honouring World.” In interviews he’s frequently cited folksinger activists such as Pete Seeger as personal inspirations. And if you go to his www.raffinews.com website, in addition to numerous social-cause links there’s a free MP3 of his latest composition, “Turn This World Around,” a tribute to the work of Nelson Mandela.)
“Well, certainly the values are clearly in the songs,” he says. “This career is about children and their right to be considered. But I view what I’m doing in the realm of the deeply humanist, if you know what I mean. We all want a world that works for as many of us as possible, not just for the privileged few. That’s the spirit in which I make my music. So I don’t consider myself to be an ‘activist’ or ‘political,’ no.”
Just the same, as our conversation winds down, I tell Raffi that his dedication of an instrumental (“Shmenge Polka”) on Bananaphone to the late, great comedian, John Candy would seem to suggest the songwriter does have his sly moments.
“Ha-haaa!” Raffi explodes with laughter, gleefully chanting the title: “Shmenge Polka!” “I’ll never forget it! John came to a gig of mine in L.A. 1984, and we were splitting our guts backstage doing this polka-duo schtick. So when he passed away, I was really saddened and thought, well, I’ll write a polka. Haven’t written one since — but I was really pleased the way that one turned out!”
And Candy, wherever he is, was no doubt pleased himself. Boys and girls, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, we give you – Raffi. The last of the great subversives? Just maybe…
Postscript: Back in 2014, I’m reflecting on what I wrote all those years ago, and remembering what it was like helping to raise a 1 ½ year old kid. I already mentioned that the Bananaphone CD was a musical staple of our household at the time, but also in regular rotation was Let’s Play, which in addition to such time-honored classics as “Eensy Weensy Spider” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It” contained the aforementioned cover of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” One afternoon while driving in the car and listening to Raffi with my young son I noticed he was happily singing along with that song. I said to myself, hmmmm, and on the next trip I popped in a collection of Beatles tunes, cueing up the original “Yellow Submarine” and subsequently noting his happy surprise.
Before too long, it was all Beatles, all the time in the car for our family. He even figured out how to tell whether it was John, Paul, George or Ringo singing lead. His love for the band steadily grew, and for his fifth birthday we took him and a couple of his buddies to see a matinee concert of a Beatles tribute band. I’m happy to say that even though he’s now 13 and getting into teenage stuff, he still greatly enjoys the Beatles (Abbey Road in particular; he’s also a big fan of Paul’s Ram album).
That’s a parental pleasure anyone with their own kid can identify with. So all I can say is—thanks, Raffi, you ol’ subversive, you. You do rock.
Below: I found this randomly while searching YouTube for Raffi music. Apologies to young Clayton and his family… but I suspect they know my heart’s in the right place.