November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

One-on-one with the legendary Raffi | ClefNotes

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Raffi. Owl Singalong. Approx. 37 min. Rounder. 2016. $14.98.
Raffi_OwlSingalong_CVR_RGB__1450734092_74440PreS-Gr 3–Beluga grads (Raffi’s term for fans who are now adults) and other fans will be happy to hear that Canadian troubadour Raffi is going retro, as he returns to his performance roots, blending new compositions with familiar tunes by other performers and his own classics from his past, making them all his own. Here he adds a tenor ukulele to his repertoire, with that instrument often providing the song’s beat, as in “The Lion Pokey,” a twist on “Hokey Pokey” that’s sung growling like a lion. The title song features Raffi hooting like an owl, blowing his lips like a trumpet, and humming in tune, with vocals just as strong and playful as ever. New songs include “I’m Not Small” (a view of the world from a child’s point of view includes children singing), “Green Dream” (a Caribbean-flavored dream of everyone being “green”), “Every Day” (a light, lyrical song of positive feelings), and “Who Hoo Could I Be?” (a jazzy animal guessing game). Classic Raffi songs include “More We Get Together” (which features a new verse about reading) and “See the Moon” (a piggyback song on “Mr. Sun”). Raffi covers “Somos El Barco” (We Are the Boat, a duet written by Lorre Wyatt that was made popular by Peter, Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger, among others), “Garden Song” (the classic John Denver tune), and “Abiyoyo” (the folk story-song popularized in the United States by Pete Seeger). VERDICT Welcome back, Raffi; a new generation of listeners awaits!–Stephanie Bange, Wright State University, Dayton, OH

Welcome to ClefNotes, SLJ‘s new music column, which will feature reviews and additional content for anyone who loves children’s music. ClefNotes is under the purview of long-time music reviewer Veronica De Fazio; it will run in its entirety on the SLJ site every other month, with an excerpt in the print magazine. In this first installment, De Fazio spoke with children’s music legend Raffi about his advocacy work and his new album, Owl Singalong, which is being released this month.—Ed.
Raffi__1450734158_61312Raffi Cavoukian, or Raffi as we know him, has been entertaining families with his timeless children’s music for almost four decades. Of Armenian descent, Raffi spent part of his childhood in Egypt before his family moved to Canada. Today he lives in Salt Spring, British Columbia, where he advocates for respecting children and the Earth, while continuing to write songs.

Your music plays such a big role in many children’s lives. Where did your love of music and performing come from?
It probably came from my father in my early days. He was always singing around the house. He also was a great musician and played accordion. In my early teens, I was in the Armenian church choir in Toronto. That was very interesting, singing soulful Armenian melodies. And then I got my first guitar when I was 16 and learned to play the songs of the Beatles; Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell; and Gordon Lightfoot.

While working as a folk musician in the 1970s, you were asked to perform songs for children in a classroom setting. After those first performances, what made you decide to continue playing children’s music?
I noticed that I had a knack for it and that my audiences were enjoying the music. Right from the beginning I wanted the music to meet the children halfway. Not to be too frenzied or loud. To be musical, the songs arranged in such a way that adults can enjoy it too. The first album that I did 39 years ago was so instantly popular that it begat the second one and it just kept on rolling.

Do you have a favorite song of yours that you still like to play?
I can’t choose. I love them too much.

Why do you think music is essential in the lives of children?
I think it’s essential in all of our lives. I think we can’t do without it because we are musical creatures. The human heartbeat is very rhythmical. It’s like we have our inner drummer from birth. Children can make the music their own if the songs are singable and that’s why we called the first album Singable Songs for the Very Young. A child singing a song, especially singing with peers or family, singing with friends, is a wonderful social way of learning.

How do you think children’s music has changed in the past 30 years or so?
I think more and more people have gotten into it. I think what it’s doing is saying to children and to parents that music, especially tailored to kids, is a valuable thing. Especially in an age where video is dominant, it’s important to have experiences for kids that are not of the screen.

Where did you draw the inspiration for your new album, Owl Singalong?
Well, I have owls in my backyard so hearing them in the nighttime going “who, who, whooo,” that got me smiling. Then, my grand-niece Lucie, who is two and a half years old, and I were video-skyping because we live thousands of miles apart and Lucie was holding a little owl plush toy. She would hold it up and say “Owl. Owl.” Just the one word. So when you listen to the title song, you’ll hear me singing it in a way so that that one word just hangs for a moment. So that got me going and I thought, what other songs would I like to sing? So I wrote a bunch of new songs and adapted two or three that people already know. I’m having a lot of fun on this album. For the first time, a lot of these songs were recorded with ukulele and that was fun because I haven’t used the uke before in recordings. I might do it again, I really enjoyed it.

It is well known that you have refused all commercial endorsements. Why has it been so important to you to refuse not just the endorsements, but direct-to-children marketing as well?
Oh, that’s an easy one. It’s out of respect for the young child. It is unethical to advertise a product to a person who is not old enough to understand its merits or downfalls. Children are very impressionable and when we advertise to them directly, we are actually manipulating them and taking advantage of them and I certainly have never ever done that nor have I ever even thought about doing it.

Many of your fans aren’t aware that beyond your music, you are a great advocate for children. Tell me more about the creation of the holistic Child Honouring philosophy.
Well, Child Honouring is a philosophy that came to me in a vision 17 years ago. The vision woke me up from a sound sleep and I knew that it was something I needed to do in the rest of my life. It was to advance an ethic that was universal about treating children with respect, love, and honouring their dreams and their unique voices in the world. Children are not here to be who we say they should be. They are here to learn their own songs. And that’s the line coming out of my “Covenant for Honouring Children,” which was inspired by the Declaration of Independence. Yes, the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence. “We find these joys to be self-evident that all children are created whole,” and so on. I had a lot of fun with this philosophy and certainly even before it came to me in this vision, you know, my work throughout my career has been child honouring. When the vision came, “child honouring” were the words that described this integrated philosophy of respecting Earth and child. If you’re a children’s advocate and you’re really serious about their well-being, it behooves you to keep in mind that it is Mother Earth that feeds us all and that we need to honour the Earth as well.

What is the most important thing that we as librarians can do to ensure that we are child honouring?
That’s a beautiful question. Well, you probably are already doing it if you have your storytimes and maybe have your sing-along sessions. You can hire the musicians who probably need the money to come in and sing. That’s how I got started. I was singing in libraries for a little bit of money here, a little bit there. You can also stock a good supply of children’s books as well as children’s audio, and notice I didn’t say video there.

Speaking of video, your latest book for adults, Lightweb Darkweb, focuses on children, screen time, and the Internet. Why did you decide to take on these topics?
Because, the tech devices, which I call “shiny tech,”—phones, iPads—are increasingly in the hands of the children as they were never intended to be. If you think about it, they weren’t designed for them. Because our primary duty to the young child is to make sure that imprinting is happening with nature and not with technology, we have to have screen limits. It’s important that we set these limits and are sensible about what we let children do in their early years so that our children have an opportunity to grow in active learning, in movement, in the arts, and all the fun things that you can do at home or in the classroom when technology is not the centerpiece.

I also wrote about the downside of the Internet technology. I call it the darkweb because for older kids who are online, there are all kinds of perils that their parents need to know about and that children need to be taught about so they can use the technology safely.

In this quick-moving, technology-driven society, how can we help children hold fast to the innocence of childhood?
What we want in young children is that wonder, which is the best learning tool you can devise. They’re born with it, it’s innate. Your job as a young child is to learn nature. It is to learn people. It is to learn what if feels like to be a human being. And I say to people, that’s why they call the early years formative. I love that “f” word because it begs the question, what is it that is forming in the formative years? And it is nothing less than the spirit and the feeling of how it feels to be human. And that is something worth protecting.

Veronica DeFazio is a long-time children’s music reviewer for SLJ and Head of Youth Services at the Plainfield Public Library, IL.

 

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Comments

  1. Georgie Camacho says:

    Thank you for this article on Raffi. My son is 26 Beluga grad. His formative years were spent listening to and singing along with Raffi. He was 3 months old and laying on a blanket on the living room floor when I put in a Raffi VHS tape (remember those?) for the first time. The moment the singing started, my little guy started waving his arms and legs and smiling the biggest smile ever. Raffi was played on VHS so many times we actually WORE out two copies of the same VHS tape over the years in the morning and before bed. I’m very grateful that Raffi chose to dedicate his life to children – he played a big part in the life of my family, that’s for sure! Thanks, Raffi, for being there.

    • Georgie Camacho says:

      Thank you for this article on Raffi. My son is 26 year old Beluga grad. His formative years were spent listening to and singing along with Raffi. He was 3 months old and laying on a blanket on the living room floor when I put in a Raffi VHS tape (remember those?) for the first time. The moment the singing started, my little guy started waving his arms and legs and smiling the biggest smile ever. Raffi was played on VHS so many times we actually WORE out two copies of the same VHS tape over the years in the morning and before bed. I’m very grateful that Raffi chose to dedicate his life to children – he played a big part in the life of my family, that’s for sure! Thanks, Raffi, for being there.