The iconic children’s performer, now known simply as Raffi, began performing folk songs for children in 1976, after trying his hand alongside other folk troubadours in Toronto.
With young audiences, something clicked — and has continued to click for the Salt Spring Island-based performer, for more than 40 record-setting years.
“I’m so grateful to be able to make music after all these years,” Raffi said Tuesday, after returning home from shows in Ontario and Quebec. “It’s quite a privilege to be a friend of the family in this way.”
Adults who saw Raffi perform hits such as Baby Beluga, Bananaphone, Day-O and Down By the Bay during their formative years are now known as Beluga Grads. These fans have begun taking their own children to his concerts, resulting in a new set of memories for both parents and tots. That’s one reason Raffi decided to shift from solely entertaining to educating, too.
It began in 1997 with a vision that awoke him early on a Sunday morning, he said. “The words ‘child honouring’ were in the air,” he said. “I knew I was being given a vision, a uniquely integrated philosophy that connected person, culture and planet with a child at its heart. I spent the next couple of years coming to know what I knew in that luminous moment.”
What resulted in 1999 was the Covenant For Honouring Children, a “three-paragraph emancipatory piece for children and our obligation to them,” according to the singer-songwriter. Leaders in various sectors praised it, and in 2000, it was turned into nine principles. Child Honouring was embraced by the education community. The Dalai Lama wrote the forward to Child Honouring: How to Turn This World Around, an anthology of opinions on the issue that Raffi co-wrote in 2006.
“I’m not a university professor, but sometimes inspiration comes through interesting channels, if you will. But what matters is, does the idea have merit?”
He eventually opened the Raffi Foundation For Child Honouring, which is headquartered on Salt Spring Island, with the idea that the non-profit organization would further the idea of treating children with respect.
“You can’t make society function for adults only, and then expect children to reach up to that. Developmentally speaking, they can’t do it. If you set up your society in a way that young children’s needs, which are both universal and irreducible, can be met in early childhood, those children can grow up with confidence. Self-confidence is more important than consumer confidence. But we don’t behave as a society that way.”
Twenty years after “the most popular children’s singer in the English-speaking world,” according to the Washington Post, embraced the idea, it has become the basis for the first-ever online course in Child Honouring. Raffi hopes that everyone from parents to policymakers takes the interdisciplinary course in conscious living at raffifoundation.org, which he created with teacher Kristin Wiens.
“It was meant to inspire people to civic duty, to connect the dots between the personal, cultural and planetary realms in which we live.”
With more than 15 million albums and DVDs sold in North America, Raffi is the closest thing the world of children’s entertainment has to a living, breathing rock star. He holds four honorary degrees, including one from the University of Victoria, and was once asked to perform at New York City’s Madison Square Garden (he turned the offer down, choosing to perform on Broadway instead).
Though his pace as a performer slows during the summer, concert tours remain a constant for the spry 70 year-old. His concerts routinely draw huge crowds, and he still makes records that draw acclaim. Dog on the Floor, released over the summer, earned the Cairo-born musician the 10th Juno Award nomination of his career.
“From the start, I got that this music needed to be playful, and I was happiest offering that. And it is in that playful tone that a young child connects, because that is where a young child lives — in play,” he said.
“My music has evolved, as you hope it would. But while the music has evolved, children’s needs are the same.”