Singer, songwriter, musician, environmentalist
Singer Raffi Cavoukian, who bills himself as Raffi, is renowned for single-handedly revolutionizing the children’s entertainment business. Since he first began performing for children in 1974, his name has become a household word in homes throughout North America; his songs are enjoyed by millions of children and adults alike, who throng to his concerts and buy his records to the tune of more than seven million albums. After more than a dozen years of building his career as a children’s entertainer, Raffi has become a self-styled “eco-trou-badour,” working with adults to promote environmental causes.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1948, Raffi is the son of an internationally acclaimed portrait photographer. His first musical memory is of his father playing the accordion and singing at family gatherings. When Raffi was ten years old, the family immigrated to Canada, where he grew up wanting to be a history teacher. As a child, he enjoyed listening to such singers as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joni Mitchell. Raffi taught himself to play the guitar while in high school, and he attended the University of Toronto for several years before dropping out to work full time as a musician. Aspiring to a career as afolksinger, he played in coffeehouses and clubs in Toronto, where he gained a small but enthusiastic following.
In 1974 Raffi’s mother-in-law asked him to perform at the day-care center she ran. His wife, Debi Pike, a kindergarten teacher, taught him a few songs, and he enjoyed himself entertaining the children. More offers for children’s performances came. Realizing that he had much to learn about an audience of young listeners, mostly two to eight years old, he and Pike avidly read books on child development and psychology. Pike collaborated with Raffi on songs, and they also drew on the resources of their teacher friends Bert and Bonnie Simpson.
Raffi’s first record, Singable Songs for the Very Young, came about at the suggestion of his mother-in-law. Raffi borrowed four thousand dollars from a bank and rented a basement recording studio. Six months later the record was finished, and the singer distributed it himself. For several years he tried to sing to both adult and child audiences. In 1977 he released two records, More Singable Songs for the Very Young and Love Light, the latter a record for adults. Yet Raffi found himself increasingly more comfortable in front of the younger listeners. “I had put a lot of time and energy into my adult career, and I didn’t want to give it up,” he recalled to Courier-Journal writer Ira Simmons, “but
For the Record…
Born Raffi Cavoukian, July 8, 1948, in Cairo, Egypt; son of a portrait photographer; immigrated to Canada, 1959; married Debi Pike (a teacher). Education: Attended University of Toronto.
Folksinger in Toronto, Ontario; children’s entertainer, 1974-89; “eco-troubadour,” 1990—. Contributed voice characterization to animated film FernGully, Twentieth Century Fox, 1992.
Awards: Order of Canada, 1983; Grammy Award nomination for best recording for children, 1987; Parents’ Choice Award, Parents’ Choice magazine.
Addresses: Home —Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Office —c/o Troubadour Records Ltd., 1075 Cambie St., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada M2M 3W3. Publicist— Sharon Weisz, W3 Public Relations, 8380 Melrose Ave., Suite 105, Los Angeles, CA, 90069.
Debi and others around me helped me see that making music for children was in and of itself valuable work. I came to see children for the people they were, and that enabled me to let my adult career go.” By 1978 he was devoting all his energy to making music for children.
With largely word-of-mouth advertising, the popularity of Raffi’s music grew steadily. His songs became favorites of schoolteachers and day-care workers, and in 1983 he was awarded the Order of Canada, that country’s highest civilian award, for his work with children. Once Raffi granted A&M distribution rights in 1984, record sales soared. More than a million copies of Singable Songs for the Very Young have been sold, and it remains the strongest selling of his nine albums. By the end of the 1980s Raffi was performing to sell-out crowds on tours throughout North America and being called the “Bruce Springsteen of the younger set.”
Raffi’s fans appreciate him for his nonthreatening appearance, pleasant voice, and infectious enthusiasm. In addition, he respects his audience. He is praised for not condescending, and he sings about what interests young children: for example, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the zoo, and teddy bears. His music reflects a wide range of styles, including folk, reggae, ragtime, gospel, jazz, country, and calypso, and is spiced with humor. He mixes old favorites with original compositions and is not afraid to sing an occasional song in Spanish or French. While some songs are obviously silly and others allow children to get up and dance in the aisles or their living rooms, all of Raffi’s tunes are upbeat. “I don’t want to sing sad songs for the kids,” he told Simmons. “I don’t think it’s fair to burden children with more anxieties than they already have.” Many parents admire Raffi’s songs because they present solid values, but the singer does not try to educate his listeners. “I don’t see myself as an educator,” he told Providence Journal writer Mike Boehm, “so I don’t write with a view to impart lessons. I don’t see that as my mission at all, and I’m not sure songs that try to do those things end up being good pieces of music. I’m interested in making good music.”
Many agree that good music not only requires creativity but quality performers and equipment. Critics laud Raffi’s Rise and Shine Band as being made up of true professionals—bassist Dennis Pendrith, drummer Bucky Berger, keyboardist Nancy Walker, and guitarist Mitch Lewis; in addition, their sound system is said to be state of the art. Raffi has refused to work in halls that seat more than three thousand and would not allow his concerts to be priced above $8.50 despite the overwhelming demand for seats. That a concert lasts only 50 minutes considerately reflects the attention span of his young listeners. Early in his career Raffi would meet with fans in the lobby after the concert, but he had to discontinue the practice when listeners would line up for several hours to have a chance to meet him.
Raffi has refused to make commercial endorsements. While he has turned down many lucrative offers to promote various products, he has approved the “Songs to Read” series of richly illustrated picture books based on some of his most well known songs; Raffi hopes that children’s familiarity with the song lyrics will act as a bridge toward recognizing the printed word. Raffi has made two videotapes, which he tried to make as interactive as possible, and he is often dismayed by the use some parents make of them—as baby-sitters. “Television isn’t a friend of children,” the singer told the Wall Street Journals Alan Freeman. “Children need to play. They need to interact with other people. That’s how they find out about the world around them.”
In the fall of 1988 Raffi decided to take a year off from giving concerts and interviews to think about future projects. “After ten years of touring I feel the time is right to make time for the private person,” the singer told Martia Kohn in the Denver Post. When he returned to the concert stage, it was quickly evident what had been on his mind during the hiatus—the environment. The self-styled “eco-troubadour” would devote his time to promoting environmental causes, not performing specifically for children.
When he signed a new record distribution contract in 1990, Raffi stipulated that he would only release an album if the CD (compact disc) longbox or other excessive packaging were eliminated. MCA rose to the challenge, and some other musicians have followed his example. The album, released in September of 1990, was Evergreen Everblue, a collection of songs about ecology and environmental issues for a much older audience than that of most of his pervious work. “For fourteen years I have made music that blends my love for children and the earth. But the earth is dying and may not be able to provide for us much longer,” he wrote in the Evergreen Everblue newsletter. “The critical urgency of the global environment crisis has led me to create something new. Evergreen Everblue is an ecology album for those of us old enough to understand the dangers and initiate change.” His activities include leading workshops on the role of artists in mobilizing society to action, singing songs from his latest album at rallies, and appearing on talk shows to promote various environmental protection efforts. Raffi believes that the fate of the earth rests on the commitment of all to protecting the environment. In the words of the “eco-troubadour,” “Evergreen, Everblue / As it was in the beginning, / We’ve got to see it through, / Evergreen, Everblue… /At this point in time / It’s up to me—its up to you.”
Published by Crown
The Raffi Singable Songbook, 1987.
The Second Raffi Songbook, 1987.
Down by the Bay, 1987.
Shake My Sillies Out, 1987.
One Light, One Sun, 1988.
The Wheels on the Bus, 1988.
The Raffi Everything Grows Songbook, 1989.
Five Little Ducks, 1989.
Everything Grows, 1989.
Raffi in Concert With the Rise and Shine Band, 1989. Baby Beluga, 1990.
On Troubadour Records
Singable Songs for the Very Young, 1976.
More Singable Songs, 1977.
The Corner Grocery Store, 1979.
Baby Beluga, 1980.
Rise and Shine, 1982.
Raffi’s Christmas Album, 1983.
One Light, One Sun, 1985.
Everything Grows, distributed by A&M, 1987.
Raffi in Concert With the Rise and Shine Band, 1989.
Evergreen, Everblue: An Ecology Album for the 90’s, distributed by MCA Records, 1990.
Also released videocassettes A Young Children’s Concert With Raffi, 1985, and Raffi and the Rise and Shine Band, A&M, 1988.
Boston Herald, April 21, 1988.
Colorado Rocky Mountain News, March 16, 1988.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), November 1, 1987.
Denver Post, January 19, 1986; October 9, 1988.
Evergreen Everblue (newsletter) Issue 1, 3, 1990.
Herald News (Passaic, NJ), October 28, 1986.
Madison Capital Times, April 7, 1986.
Minneapolis Tribune, November 29, 1985.
New York Daily News, September 25, 1988.
Parents’ Magazine, November 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1987.
Providence Journal, November 27, 1987.
Sacramento Bee, December 16, 1985.
San Diego Union, February 22, 1986.
Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk), November 4, 1987.
Wall Street Journal, June 29, 1987.
Washington Post, November 8, 1987.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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