Aman, a guitar and a banana are alone in the spotlight. The glowing yellow fruit is nothing less, he says, than a “high-fibre tool of the information low-way, a digital imagination device.” And who is the whimsical guy cradling it on his shoulder, eyes wide with wonder under those unnaturally dark eyebrows? According to his B.C. driver’s licence, he is Raffi Cavoukian, but to his concert audience, many of whom sit bouncing and wriggling on adult knees, he is simply Raffi. The 46-year-old divorced father of none may just be the grown-up world’s best-loved musical ambassador to those under the age of 8. Small bodies sway to an infectious beat as the performer sings about exploring the world through the imaginative power of his marvelous bananaphone: “I’ll call for pizza. I’ll call my cat/I’ll call the White House and have a chat.”
The vintage Raffi wordplay and positive, life-affirming sentiment come from the title track of his latest collection of songs. Bananaphone, released in September, is just one of several milestones in a year that has seen the Vancouver-based musician enjoy international recognition for his efforts on behalf of the environment. In June, the UN Environment Program named Raffi to its select Global Roll of Honor for creating music “which teaches love and respect for other species.” The award came partway through a sold-out 60-city North American concert tour.
Bom in Egypt of Armenian parents, Raffi moved with his family to Toronto at age 10 in 1958. Inspired by such Canadian folksingers of the Sixties as Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, he launched his own career in the coffeehouses of southern Ontario in 1970. Four years later, encouraged by his wife, elementary schoolteacher Debra Pike, Raffi began visiting classrooms to perform folksongs for children. His first album, Singable Songs for the Very Young, followed in 1976; its breezy mix of old standards and Raffi’s own whimsical compositions captivated children and quickly charmed their parents as well. Over the next decade, as Singable Songs and succeeding albums were routinely certified gold and platinum, Raffi’s evident respect for both his young fans and their parents helped transform the standard of commercial children’s music.
By 1989, however, Raffi felt as though he had reached a plateau. “I was tired and I needed a break,” he says now. A year of contemplation and re-evaluation brought a sober awakening to the parlous state of the planet. On a trip to Quebec, Raffi discovered that pollution in the St. Lawrence River had become so bad that real white whales, the models for his musical Baby Beluga, were not only dying in disturbing numbers, they were dying of chemical contamination so severe that their bodies had to be treated as toxic waste. Angry and alarmed, Raffi infused his next album, Evergreen, Everblue (1990), with an uncharacteristically sharp message and aimed it at adults and older adolescents.
Resuming children’s performances has brought Raffi’s concern for the environment to the audience where his influence is greatest. It was partly a selfish decision, he admits—“I missed the play that I enjoyed with my audiences.” Clearly, though, Raffi also believes passionately in the importance of preserving a safe and healthy environment for his young fans to grow up in. “Why,” he challenges other adults, “doesn’t our society have, as its most basic organizing principle, meeting children’s needs?” If Raffi has found a renewed pleasure in singing for the very young, his message is one that deserves to be heard by Canadians of every age.
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