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Raffi balances activism, superstar status

What: Raffi Where: Royal Theatre When: Saturday, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tickets: $33.25 and up (250-386-6121) For the Rolling Stones, it might be Satisfaction. For Led Zeppelin, it’s likely Stairway to Heaven.
Raffi plays the Royal Theatre Saturday.

What: Raffi
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Saturday, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Tickets: $33.25 and up (250-386-6121)


For the Rolling Stones, it might be Satisfaction. For Led Zeppelin, it’s likely Stairway to Heaven. And as far as Raffi’s greatest hit, it is certainly Baby Beluga.

The Salt Spring Island children’s entertainer has been singing his ear-worm ditty about a jolly whale since 1980, when the song was released. He performs Baby Beluga at every show — which makes one wonder whether he is tired of it.

Not at all, says Cairo-born Raffi Cavoukian. For starters, the 67-year-old believes he owes it to his audience to sing Baby Beluga. And it happens to be a challenging song to play on guitar — so this makes it more interesting to perform. (He still practises regularly to keep it up to snuff.)

“It’s tricky,” said Raffi, who visited the Times Colonist offices this week. “There’s a contrapuntal finger-picking riff.”

Described by the Washington Post as “the most popular children’s singer in the English-speaking world,” Raffi plays two solo concerts at the Royal Theatre on Saturday. He also performs a pair of concerts Sunday at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre.

Raffi is a superstar in the arena of children’s entertainment. He has sold more than 15 million albums and DVDs in North America. Like Madonna or Bono, he’s one of those rare celebrities known by one name only.

It’s true there have been a few glitches in his career. For instance, a 1990 environmental album aimed at older listeners, Evergreen Everblue, was a commercial flop. In 2012, Raffi returned to the stage (making his grand return in Victoria) after a decade-long hiatus, suggesting his enthusiasm for performing had waned for a time.

These days, Raffi — smiling and laughing often in conversation — declares himself to be “in a great place.” He’s touring once again to support his new children’s album Owl Singalong. And he’s managing to balance his political beliefs — typically reflecting a concern for the environment — with his role as a pop star for the kindergarten set.

Raffi is a Twitter devotee with 35,000-plus followers who habitually took aim at Stephen Harper in the months preceding the federal election. Of late, he has aligned himself with Shawnigan Lake residents protesting the dumping of contaminated soil near their watershed.

This week, Raffi announced plans to do a benefit concert for the Shawnigan Lake Residents Association on April 24 at Duncan’s Cowichan Performing Arts Centre.

“When you think about it, it doesn’t take a genius to realize Shawnigan Lake is the last place you should put toxic materials,” said Raffi.

“I’ve called on the [environment] minister on Twitter to either do her job or resign. Your sworn duty is to protect the environment, so you’re either going to do that and respect the people of Shawnigan — or resign.”

Owl Singalong includes the song Garden Song, a tribute to Pete Seeger. As well, there’s a spoken-word rendition of Abiyoyo, an African folk tale regularly performed by Seeger.

A celebrated American folk singer and activist who died in 2014, Seeger is a hero of Raffi. He compares Seeger’s efforts to save New York’s Hudson River with his own efforts with Shawnigan Lake.

Two years before Seeger’s death, a mutual friend introduced Raffi to Seeger.

“He was fabulous. I walked in the door [of his home] and he starts singing a song. And I harmonized with him. And then we sat down and had a meal with his wife and his daughter,” Raffi said.

Despite his earnestness when it comes social issues, Raffi was whimsical and good-humoured in conversation. He joked about the two owls near his Salt Spring home that inspired the song Owl Singalong, imitating their hoots and making a quip about “surround sound.”

Raffi recalled meeting Justin Trudeau at an Ottawa conference in 2009. The future prime minister told Raffi Singable Songs for the Very Young was his favourite album as a child.

“He said: ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life to meet you.’ Smooth eh?” the singer said, grinning. “He’s the first ‘Beluga grad’ prime minister. How happy am I about that?”

Raffi was part of Toronto’s coffee-house folksinger scene in the early 1970s. Released in 1976, Singable Songs for the Very Young was his first children’s album and remains his best-selling disc. The engineers were Daniel and Bob Lanois (Daniel later became an internationally known record producer working with the likes of U2, Bob Dylan and Neil Young). The Lanois brothers cut Raffi’s record, a mix of traditional songs and originals, in their mother’s basement.

Raffi realized he had found his niche when parents of nursery-school children began ordering four and five copies of Singable Songs for the Very Young.

“People were telling me it was irresistible. When they told me that, then I knew I had something,” he said.

The secrets behind his success are simple. Never patronize or talk down to youngsters (he learned that from a former wife, a kindergarten teacher). And when creating music, Raffi — who has never had children of his own — tries to remember himself as a child.

Of course, the songs have to be good.

“That’s key,” he said. “You can be nice to kids all you want, but if the songs don’t cut it, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Raffi said he plans to record 10 more albums over the next 13 years. At least, that’s what he hopes to do. He intends the next one to have a big-band feel (with this in mind, he grabbed his smartphone to show off an app featuring non-stop big-band music). Several friends in a Calgary jazz orchestra have already volunteered their services for the next recording.

Halfway through his seventh decade, Raffi says he has embraced an “every day is precious” philosophy.

“I’m so loving every day. I feel full of joy. I have a lot of love to give, whether musically or meeting my fans at the Saturday market [on Salt Spring] or just walking around town. I feel really good.”