This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Raffi
Pied piper to a generation of Beluga Grads, Raffi Cavoukian not only changed the way music is recorded and performed for children, but he’s been a profound child educator, and advocate for enhancing child development studies in a technology-driven world.
He is, of course, best known as a children's entertainer— “the most popular children’s singer in the English-speaking world”—with over 25 albums to his credit on his own Troubadour Records.
Raffi was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1948, the child of Armenian parents. A decade later, the family moved to Toronto. He currently resides on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.
In the early ‘70s, Raffi was working around Toronto as a folksinger performing in clubs, and coffee houses. After releasing his self-produced adult album, “Good Luck Boy,” on Troubadour, he began performing to school children as part of the “Mariposa in the Schools” program to supplement his income.
Around the same time, Raffi’s then mother-in-law invited him to sing at her nursery school. She recognized his ability to connect with children in a genuine way. She also suggested he do a recording for young children because she felt there was a lack of quality music available for the age group.
Raffi’s debut children’s album, “Singable Songs for the Very Young,” was released in late 1976 with the front cover drawn in crayon by a child, and the catchy phrase, “Great with a peanut butter sandwich.”
“Singable Songs for the Very Young” broke the artistic ground that Raffi’s career would be built on. It was a quality recording with exceptional musicianship and memorable songs.
Four years later, Raffi released “Baby Beluga,” the counterpart to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in kid music circles.
Raffi had become a children’s icon.
The ensuing string of Raffi albums and DVDs have since sold over 15 million units, including more than three million “Songs to Read” books.
By the early ‘90s, Raffi had broadened his focus. After attending ecology summits, and advocating for ecology initiatives, he began writing and performing ecology-themed music.
In 1997, Raffi developed a holistic philosophy called Child Honouring outlined in the 2006 anthology “Child Honouring: How To Turn This World Around” (edited with Sharna Olfman) with a foreword by the Dalai Lama.
To express Child Honouring themes musically, Raffi recorded two albums for adults, “Resisto Dancing” (2006) and “Communion” (2009).
in 2010, Raffi founded the Centre for Child Honouring on Salt Spring Island. The Centre advocates for an ecological worldview, a whole systems shift in the way people think, and make decisions that affect children today, and the world they will inherit.
Raffi’s current album “Owl Singalong” features 16 new songs incorporating a range of styles and a variety of instruments, including strings, horns and ukulele. On the album, he pays tribute to the late Pete Seeger with "Garden Song," and a remarkable spoken-word rendition of the beloved African folk tale "Abiyoyo.”
2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Raffi’s first and still best-selling album, “Singable Songs for the Very Young.” As a result, he is performing select family concerts in Canada this month (May 2016), and in November 2016.
When I mentioned to friends that I was interviewing you, they were impressed. They see you as a superstar.
Is there a question there (laughing)?
Well you must be aware of that.
I’m waiting for your question. It’s nice to be popular. It beats the opposite.
Are you aware of your superstar status?
I don’t walk around with status in my mind.
C’mon, when you walk through an airport....
No, I’m not aware of that. When I’m at an airport I’m looking at, “Do I have my boarding pass?” That’s what on my mind. “Where did I put my boarding pass? Where’s my black shoulder bag?”
You do have people that do approach you.
I do but I don’t walk around with an image of myself. I’m just being me which is a person who is 67-years-old; who is very lucky to have an enduring career; and who is happy to make music with people.
You have released what 25 albums now?
I’ve lost count, actually (laughing).
Do you ever look back at your career with the sudden realization of what your accomplishments actually have been?
It makes me smile. I wrote an autobiography in 1999 (“Raffi: The Life of a Children’s Troubadour”), and I published it. People said, “Why are you writing it now? Why not later in life?” I said I don’t know how long that I’m going to live.
There are certain events in your life that inspired that book, including both your parents passing away within hours of each other in 1995.
Yes. The death of my parents. But my point is that when I read that book—on occasion I will look at it—I’m amazed at some of the things that happened, including singing for (former Soviet president Mikhail) Gorbachev. That was an incredible experience for me in Kyoto, Japan in 1993. He and (his wife) Raisa were so complimentary to me. They said, “You must sing Russian romances. We like your voice” blah blah blah. A surreal moment on that stage in Kyoto on Earth Day in 1993. Then singing for...well having (British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist) Jane Goodall doing chimp sounds on my “Jane Jane” tribute to her on my 2002 “Let’s Play” album comes to mind.
Sharing tie secrets with Bill Clinton in 1993 at his inaugural. You in a red, blue and orange tie with a zebra stripe at the knot. Clinton saying, ‘I used to wear ties like that before I ran for president.”
Well, yeah but at the same time I’m thinking more about singing for the Dalai Lama in 2004 at The Orpheum (in Vancouver). By the way, I just returned to The Orpheum. I sold out a show there, and that was quite something. It was just the warmest feeling. But I am also thinking about singing in 2001 for Nelson Mandela at Ryerson University (in Toronto). Whoooo, that was an experience when I sang “Turn This World Around.” But there are more. I just don’t want to name drop...
It isn’t until later when you look back that you begin to contextualize experiences.
That’s right. Sometimes you are aware of the moment in the moment. There are times where you are truly aware of the moment. You have to be aware of it, and be able to let it go so you can do your job well.
Do those attending your family shows today still want to hear the classics?
Oh yeah, and they have every right to hear them, and I oblige. I give them the classics. There’s a reasonable expectation. If I go to see Donovan, which I think I will in October in Vancouver, I will probably want to hear the songs that I know. I’m also be curious of...
What he’s up to...
Yeah, but if I don’t hear the golden stuff I will be disappointed. By the same token, I think that it’s reasonable for my fans to want to hear “Baby Beluga,” “Down By The Bay,” and “Bananaphone.” I mix in one or two new songs but my challenge, as you can imagine Larry, is that the show cannot be much longer than 55 or 60 minutes with an encore. So I have to be creative in fashioning a set list that might have a medley here and there, but it’s hard to know what new stuff to incorporate when there’s so many old and goldies that need to be there.
How do new audiences find out about you? You aren’t on radio. In the early days, you had television specials running in North America.
In the old days, it was word-of-mouth, which it still is, but I remember in 1988 the Disney Channel showed my “Raffi In Concert With the Rise and Shine Band” concert video, and that brought a lot of people out to the shows. But how do people hear about anything? These days there’s social media. There’s people who have kids telling other families who have just had a child. They are giving “Singable Songs for the Very Young” as a present, right? Word-of-mouth. It just gets around. Then someone goes to a concert, has a great experience, and tells somebody else. “Go and see him” in blah blah blah. “You will love it” type of thing.
You set up Troubadour Records in the mid ‘70s?
In 1975. It was a private proprietorship to begin with and, I think, that we went to being a corporation in ’77.
Do you have difficulty wearing all your different hats? Label owner, music publisher, manager, and artist. Are you a good businessman?
Yes, I am because I keep things simple. I try not to grow or do anything faster than I can process it. I learned about the music biz, and about the importance of owning your own stuff (music), and leasing rather than selling your songs to other labels.
Let’s not kid each other. You had a degree of power early in your career because you had sold a great many albums as an independent. So when you went to talk to A&M Records of Canada its president Gerry Lacoursiere was receptive to your plans for the future.
The thing is that I didn’t do talking. Bill Hinkson was my lawyer. He taught me a lot. He did the negotiations. But I am the one that insisted, for example, when we got the U.S. deal in 1984 that A&M also carry the Fred Penner records which were on Troubadour at the time.
I can recall you carrying albums out of your car trunk into the Sam The Record Man store on Yonge Street in Toronto.
Yeah, and A&A Records next door. From North York, where I lived at the time in North Toronto, I used to take the albums to the stores myself. I was a one-man record company. Humble beginnings. Everything starts small and everything grows.
I win trivia contests asking who worked with Raffi on his first couple of albums.
There you go. I knew that we were going to talk about Daniel (Lanois) at some point.
Also on hand for those sessions was Ken Whiteley, still one of Canada’s foremost roots musicians, who can play more than a dozen instruments.
Whiteley as well. I am going to team up with Whiteley in the Fall. We are going to do four dates as part of the 40th anniversary celebration.
As a producer, I did two productions with Daniel in the ‘70s. Back then we called him Danny.
Danny. We also used to call him Dan.
You worked in the 8-track basement studio of Dan and Bob Lanois mother’s home with egg cartons stuck on the wall.
That was for “Singable Songs for the Very Young” (1976) which is still the best-selling of all my albums even though it’s the shortest. It’s 29 minutes long. People just love that album.
Recorded for under $4,000.
I think it was $3,600. That’s what I remember. I went to the...
You got a bank loan.
I got a bank loan.
We met each other at CBC-Radio in the ‘70s when you were promoting that album.
In fact, it was on the “Touch The Earth” show in late 1976 or early 1977 that Sylvia Tyson played three songs from “Singable Songs” and in my post office box the following week there were something 30 letters for mail orders for that album.
In the ‘70s, CBC-Radio broke a number folk acts that were recording independently, including Stringband, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Stan Rogers, Ferron, and Connie Kaldor.
You are absolutely right. The Mother Corp. had its way with my early music, and I was very appreciative.
You were part of the second wave of Canadian folk that followed Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and even Bruce Cockburn. You would have been influenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan....
Joni, Peter, Paul and Mary. Lightfoot, of course. Yes, absolutely.
In your autobiography you talk about sitting around with friends smoking dope, and listening to records.
Bruce Cockburn comes to mind. It was the era. I remember Bruce’s early solo shows. I had never heard anything quite like them, except Joni Mitchell in her own way. What all of that gave me, I think, in terms of singer/songwriter style of music, it gave me such a high bar of songwriting to aspire towards that these days in music it doesn’t matter to me how popular a band or a singer is, if the song doesn’t cut it, then I am just not there.
Performing children’s folk music wasn’t at all natural to you. Being Armenian you grew up in a non-English household. With songs like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb” you didn’t know all the words.
That’s true, but as I grew as a singer/songwriter....
The breakthrough for you as a songwriter was “Baby Beluga” in 1980.
Indeed. But it was so wonderful for me to have the folk music experience from which to make that transition to devoting myself to being a children’s troubadour and then when it came to songwriting to aim high. Yeah, it makes me smile to look back, honestly. It’s just great.
You, the Lanois brothers, and Ken Whiteley were all learning about studio production at the same time. Someone who helped you move on in terms of production was Don Potter.
That’s interesting that you mention Don. I learned a lot from Don.
You two did the “Adult Entertainment” album in 1977 in which you covered songs by Stan Rogers, Jesse Winchester, Robbie MacNeill, and others.
Don was great. He is such a great musician. I wonder what he’s doing these days.
[American musician/producer Don Potter went on to be A longstanding producer for both the Judds and Wynonna Judd as well as a noted Nashville studio musician featured on recordings by Toby Keith, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Etta James, Bob Seger and many others. His latest album is titled “Come Up Here.”]
Don worked in Toronto a lot in the ‘70s. I remember seeing him at The Riverboat.
Oh God yes, his shows there. The Riverboat, man you are taking me back.
Did you any apprehension in the beginning of performing to children, if only because of a general ignorance of children that many people have?
Actually, I didn’t. I just eased into it, and came to learn how important music can be for little kids. Once I understood that I was off and running. It was great.
You once remarked “Children are the most reasonable people that I know. They spend their days trying to make sense of the world, searching for meaning, and trying to figure out things.” That comment takes me back to thinking about my own childhood.
That’s what kids do, and there is always a reason for how a child is in a given moment. If you look to the child with understanding, then that helps the moment to be the best it can; instead of reacting in that punitive way if a child is “misbehaving.” There’s always a reason for how children are. The compassionate way of looking at children I learned from my former wife Deb, who was a kindergarten teacher, and (also primary schoolteachers) Bonnie and Bert (Simpson) who were our friends—I still work with Bert of course... (now senior associate with Troubadour Records, and dir. of the Centre of Child Honouring.)
You worked as The Committee for those early albums.
Yes, The Committee, the educational committee which was the three of them. They taught me so much about having a compassionate look at children. I had no idea who kids were when I started.
That’s what I meant by being child ignorant.
Well, I was. I’ve said so myself. It gives me great hope that if someone like the former me could come to learn about kids than anybody can. All you have to do is have a willingness to look at the child for who the child is—the whole person worthy of respect because of a child’s innate and universal loving capacity. Then we see ourselves in the child if we allow ourselves a moment. Just like you said taken back to when you were three years old, right? So then how can you not have compassion for your early origins? Because you were just trying to understand what it felt like to be human, and what social interactions were about. What is emotional life? How to navigate what you felt so strongly as a child. Somebody said something very interesting, a child educator said that children feel the same as adults, they don’t think the same. I have never forgotten that. It’s true. So you think differently as you grow in experience, and then you are cognitive of mental ability to make sense of what you feel. So life actually is a felt experience, and then as we learn how to hold that experience, then we make sense of what we feel. It’s true of all children. All of us, actually.
How have you become so perceptive about all this?
This has been my long communion with things having to do with childhood and the nature of the child, the nature of children, the nature of being. Like how do we become the adults that we are? When you have been hanging out with the stuff as long as I have, with a deep yearning for understanding this stuff, insights come to you. Then you test those insights, and then you find them to be true. In fact, that’s where I hang my hat most of the time which I know to be true about children.
Did you really make song choices by committee?
I wouldn’t say that I did them by committee. The Committee helped with song choices. I would say, “Here are the song choices that appeal to me for this upcoming album what do you guys thing” type of thing. Yes.
How do you make choices today when you write most of your own songs now?
Oh well, yes since the “Everything Grows” album in 1987. By “Bananaphone” in 1994 I was so confident in the recording studio that it seemed--I wouldn’t want to say easy. It’s hard work to do a good album—but I really enjoyed myself in the studio, and that’s key. You have to feel good in the studio about what you are doing. I enjoyed my own songwriting. “Bananaphone” itself, as a song for me, was a hilarious experience to write and record. I still don’t know how I make the sound “Babdadoobledoo.” So I write a lot of my own songs now. Not exclusively, but I do. I just so enjoy recording, making musical pictures, that’s it is fun.
In “Like Me and You” from the “One Light One Sun” album in 1985, you sing that wherever a child is from “Each is like the other, the child of a mother and a father.” I read a story about a same sex partner singing over those lyrics, “The child of a Dada and a Papa,” and then saying to their child, “He’s forgetting some families, isn’t he?” Same sex and single parent families are far more common today.
Oh for sure, and I celebrate diversity. Diversity is the second of nine principles in Child Honouring. Yeah, I haven’t musically addressed what you are speaking about, but it is certainly an interesting phenomenon of these times as we grow in our sense, and in our appreciation of what family can be.
An aspect of your catalog is the exceptionally high musicianship. Some children’s performers have knocked off albums in a couple of days like Christmas albums are often recorded. You never did that.
No. I did the opposite. These are quality recordings. We used the word “quality” at the beginning. Listen to the musicianship on my song “Green Dream” on the “Owl Singalong” album. I’m quite proud of that. There’s a horn section and a cello section. It’s beautiful. And the children’s’ voices. All of it coming together.
Kids’ music when you started was primarily budget-based Golden Records that accompanied Little Golden Books and sold for 25 cents, and later 29 cents. What was a breakthrough about your recordings was it wasn’t bargain bin priced; the music wasn’t syrupy or frantic; and everything was well produced.
You came from folk music. Was James Taylor a big influence on you because your voice on your recordings is quite similar to James’ recordings.
It’s interesting that you mention James because I loved his sound and his vibe. In fact, as a folk singer, I would have been happy to have a James Tayloresque career, playing what I used to think of as playing medium-sized halls (laughing).
Like Convocation Hall in Toronto with a capacity of 1,730 people.
Well no, that’s a big hall. It almost makes me think of SCTV, but we shouldn’t go there. “I didn’t want to be a singer doing the secondary venues.” (Laughing)
Eugene Levy’s character Bobby Bittman.
Bobby Bittman, yes. “He’s just back from a show in the secondary venues.” Oh, Bobby Bittman. Let’s not go there. John Candy did come and see me backstage in 1984 at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles. What a thrill was that? That was great. Then I did a “The Shmenge Polka” tribute to him when he died (in 1994). I did. Check it out. It‘s on my “Bananaphone” album in 1994. “Shmenge Polka.” I had to get permission from his sidekick, Eugene Levy.
Speaking of big rooms, True or not true that you refused to perform at Madison Square Gardens in 1984?
True. It was too big a venue. It was suggested to me that it would be a great way to break Raffi in America. I said no.
You still don’t play huge venues.
There was a period in the summers that I used to play, what are called in the industry, sheds. Wolf Trap and other similar venues like Ontario Place.
I once saw Frank Sinatra shrink Maple Leaf Gardens into a living room with an intimate performance.
You can do things like that, but that’s an adult singing to an adult audience. A children’s audience is a whole different thing. You have to think of the kids’ comfort, their physical comfort. Where the washrooms are. You have to think about a whole bunch of things differently. Also the child’s experience of such a huge event, it just didn’t feel appropriate to me. The largest concert hall that I’ve ever played at I think was the Fox Theatre in St. Louis which is 4,500 (capacity), and we sold that out. This was in mid-‘90s. They said that I could do another show. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a beautiful theater to play. I just played The Orpheum (in Vancouver), and selling out two concerts, as I have done the last few years, at Roy Thompson Hall (In Toronto) is always a thrill. But what’s really important to me is that the venue works for what we are trying to do, which is often just me onstage. A solo singer leading a sing-along for an hour. Very much in the Pete Seeger spirit.
Was Pete Seeger an inspiration?
Huge. A huge inspiration. I went to pay tribute to him two years before he died (in 2014). I actually met him through a video producer Jim Brown, a mutual friend, and we went to see him at his home north of New York City, near Beacon, New York. I went to say “thank you,” essentially. He was 92 at the time. He graciously welcomed me. We went to the Clearwater Music Festival with David Amram, and I got to sing with Pete and with David. We sang “This Land is Your Land,” and “The Little Light Of Mine.” It was an amazing experience. He was a huge inspiration. In fact, if you look at my latest album “Owl Singalong” you will see that I recorded his classic (African folktale) “Abiyoyo.”
It’s about a little boy who plays the ukulele, and you play the ukulele for the very first time on an album.
Yep, on this album. It’s a beautiful Lili uke.
I’m surprised it took this long for you to record with a ukulele.
Yes (laughing), I’m ever evolving as an artist. You come to something when you come to it.
Another thing you did was that when the producers of “Shrek” came to you with the idea to do a “Baby Beluga” film, you passed.
Primarily because they would have marketed the film to children?
Exactly for that reason. It’s unethical to do so. You don’t advertise directly to children. That’s unethical. So I said no. It was a very simple decision, really. I do think that if there are some socially responsible investors who would want to come together and fund a “Baby Beluga” movie, one that could be marketed respectively for a young audience, I’d consider it. I think it would be fun.
Toy merchandise pitched to kids doesn’t appeal to you?
I wouldn‘t do that stuff, no, but if it was a direct to DVD or something, whereby the investors weren’t in it just for money but for a social and environmental returns as well which is what a triple bottom line investment approach would be, I would be interested in that.
Your new video “Wave of Democracy” was inspired by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders?
Oh, completely. It is a Bernie-inspired song, and I think in my role as a democracy champion and a democracy defender. Keep in mind that my Armenian family came to Canada as immigrants in 1958. Liberty is so important (to me) that I want every young person, every young adult to understand the vital importance of being engaged in democracy, Larry. Not just at elections but between elections. See who is saying what so we can improve the political culture so we can attract our best minds to represent people in governments, rather than representing corporations and concentrations of power. I’m really inspired by Bernie’s bold, positive, visionary call for a politcal revolution to essentially reclaim the “We the People” spirit that America started with.
Democracy is not just an American goal either.
The word “democracy” itself provides powerful imagery for those around the world. Today, there’s a global cry from people to have their voices heard.
Absolutely. Yes, exactly and there’s a cry within the American populace for that as well. France gave Lady Liberty, the Statue of Liberty, to the U.S. I think that’s poignant. I can’t help but be moved every time that I see a photo of the Statue of Liberty. That’s why I included her in great measure in that video.
In our time we saw the Berlin Wall come down, and we witnessed significant changes in South Africa, the former Soviet Union, and in China.
What was considered impossible became possible. The Soviet Union broke apart. Hello?
The CNN series “The Eighties” recently featured the powerful political story of Polish labor activist Lech Wałęsa who co-founded and headed Solidarity, the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, and then served as president of Poland.
Freedom is such an energy in the world. Self-determination, it will spring forth in new voices whether it will be Lech Wałęsa as you said or Martin Luther King and now Bernie Sanders. You just can’t squash such a vital a force as the will to be free. It’s human nature.
Canada now has a prime minster Justin Trudeau who is a Beluga Grad, someone who grew up on your music.
He is. The first Beluga Grad prime minister. That’s beautiful. I met him in 2009. When we met he said, “I’ve waited all my life to meet you, Raffi.”
Meanwhile, your incessant Twitter campaign was centered around unseating former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
Well we did that. I feel really good that Justin is our PM. Let me say that I get a lot of artistic satisfaction recording songs like “Somos El Barco” which is recorded on the “Owl Singalong” album. I think you will be pleased with the musicality of it. I even played lead ukulele as well as rhythm on that. Ukulele sound really good as a lead.
[Maclean’s magazine columnist Paul Wells called Raffi out during an exchange about the Canadian election. In a couple of tweets Raffi called Harper “a lawless, rogue PM” whose government “was convicted of wrongdoing in each of last 3 elections.” Wells, author of “The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006,” responded, “The Governor-General, Elections Canada and the Constitution disagree with you, you flatulent crank.”]
You took a long hiatus from performing. Did you need that time away to recharge?
The hiatus was from 2002 to 2012. It was mostly because I was developing the Child Honouring Concept, my philosophy. I didn’t feel that I could do that and tour at the same time. Maybe, I was wrong about that, but that’s the way that I felt. I published an anthology in 2006 (“Child Honouring: How to Turn This World Around”) which I co-edited with psychology professor Sharma Olfman. That was a big deal getting 22 contributors (including Penelope Leach, Fritjof Capra, David Korten, Riane Eisler, Mary Gordon, Graca Machel, Joel Bakan, Matthew Fox, Barbara Kingsolver, Jean-Daniel Williams, and others) to all echo their own sense of the importance of honoring children, especially in the foundation’s early years.
But yeah, being a children’s advocate, as I have taken seriously for a long time, really came to the forefront during those 10 years that I was away from the concert stage. But I was also doing keynote appearances on Child Honouring where I would sing without guitar. Just with a vocal mic I would sing to TV mixes of three or four of the new songs that I had recorded that had Child Honouring themes. One was “It Takes A Village.” Another song was the Mandela song, “Turn This World Around.” Another song was “Human Child” which I recorded on my “Resisto Dancing” (“Songs of Compassionate Revolution”) album in 2006. The audience found that an interesting part of hearing and feeling of what Child Honouring is about.
Reviewers then suggested you were in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but really what you were discovering became part of your evolution.
Yep, people evolve or they stagnate. What we said at the beginning because you evolve you can do what you want because you feel free. That’s how it is. I sing the songs in concert that are fun to sing.
Has your audience changed much from when you started? Are kids still kids?
Oh definitely. How I answer that question is children and their essential universal and irreducible needs in infancy, that doesn’t change. What changes is the culture that they are growing into and how they are socialized and the technology that might be affecting their development. That’s what changes. But the essential nature of the child does not change.
Even with all of the new technology around them?
Well, I will leave it to others to talk about their physiology in terms of the trace amounts of toxic compounds in cord blood samples but clearly we are affecting newborns with poisons. That aside, I’m talking about the younger human animal staying the same and it’s a marvel to behold. I call the child the universal human because it is in infancy that we see how much alike that we all are. I say that the six-month-old is the same biological creature, the same physiological creature anywhere in the world. Any culture you can name. and that is a marvel to behold. That’s the universal human is the young child.
Concerned about the effects of digital and social media on children, you wrote “Lightweb Darkweb” in 2013 which urged parents to cut their children’s time on social media, warning that the Internet carries a raft of “social, ecological and health hazards.”
Yes. I have written about this a lot, and advocated about it. The screen is not a natural friend of the child. Nature is. I think that enlightened parents do their best to limit screen time. The screen is in all of our lives. There’s no question that screens can also offer wonderful elements of how we know the world, and how we communicate, but for the very young child whose priority task is to learn about the rhythms of the seasons—not the lightening speed of electronic technology—you can see the tension there between the seductive power of what I call “shiny tech,” of all of these electronic devices. There’s the tension there between that seductive power, and the real physiological need for the child not to be overtaken by that secondary representation of the world in a little electronic device.
An overabundance of media stimuli, whether by television, gaming or social media can lead to a child having a lack of attention. They may then have difficulty reading.
I know and much has been written about this. There’s a brilliant book, “The Big Disconnect” by Catherine Steiner-Adair at the Harvard Medical School. I’m going to meet with Catherine when I’m in Boston soon. “The Big Disconnect” is quite the book for parents. I think that the subtitle is “Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships In the Digital Age.” Just the fact that the subtitle has to say that gives you a sense of the importance of what we are talking about. This is not a small thing. There’s always been reasons to limit kids’ screen times. When we said that we used to think that it was television and computer games. Now it’s even more important to have clear limits because these devices are all around, and they are in our hands and in our laps. We have to be smart.
One of my daughter’s friends would become so focused on gaming while riding in our car that she’d shut out whatever was around her.
That’s exactly what I am talking about. So you see the seductive power when you take the device away from the child and a tantrum breaks out. Well, that’s not right. That’s clearly, clearly a sign of trouble. In fact, I’ve heard that in China there are intervention techniques being used for teens addicted to playing on computer games. They are taken to a treatment center whereby for three weeks they have no devices whatsoever.
[China began to classify Internet addiction as a disease in 2008. Since then, the country has developed Internet addiction treatment facilities for such addiction. The 2013 American-Israeli documentary “Web Junkie” follows the rehabilitation of several teenage internet addicts in a rehabilitation camp in the south of Beijing.]
When your family first arrived in Canada, and were staying in a Montreal hotel the first thing you and your brother Onnig did was rush to watch television.
(Laughing) It was black-and-white. I was 10 years. So I understand the power of the screen. I come at this honestly. I know the power of the screen very very well, and I respect my parent’s firm decision not to allow us to watch anything more than a half hour an evening. Even though we didn’t like that as kids it doesn’t matter. The parent’s job is to know what is good for the child and to set clear limits. The parent’s job is not to be a friend to the child. That is not the point.
Were you a great reader as a child?
I came to be. I was a late reader. I was in Cairo, and in my early years in Canada. I was reading the Armenian books including by my namesake Raffi (the celebrated Armenian writer Hakob Melik Hakobian) There’s a famous book that he wrote (in 1880) called “The Fool.” Yeah, I was a reader, but I had to learn English and then become a reader in English. That took awhile. That was a transition. I think that I became a really avid reader once I left university in second year.
Where did you study?
I was at the U of T (University of Toronto). I left with six weeks to go in the second year and I never looked back.
What were you studying?
We used to call it Soc and Phil. Sociology and philosophical studies. In second year I was taking or majoring in Japanese and Chinese studies. I came across the Tao Te Ching (a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism) through that which blew my mind wide enough that I could see that I could leave university. I’d recommend reading the Tao Te Ching.
Leaving university greatly impressed your parents did it?
Yeah my parents, they were quite taken aback. But the young heart has to do what it has to do. I followed my heart. I read somewhere that if you don’t follow your heart that might regret it later. I actually read it and I took it to heart.
What happened with your father’s photo legacy.
Oh my brother has it. He’s in Parksville (British Columbia). He’s out on the West coast, and he has the negatives. He’s a wonderful photographer. My goodness. Immensely talent. It’s great to have that legacy.
[Raffi’s mother, Lucie, was a school teacher, and his father Arto was a renowned portrait photographer with a global reputation who photographed Indira Gandhi, David Ben-Gurion, Charles de Gaulle, and many other celebrated public figures.]
A Canadian governor-general sought your father to take an official portrait, and your mother told you, “We do this not for money, but for “honor.” Obviously, your mother and father felt they were serving their new country that had offered their family freedom.
“We do it for honor.” In fact, my brother was a big part of that because he was the person in the lab. He was the tech guy along with my father, of course. My brother was principally the tech guy and then he grew on to take his own portraits, of course (working professionally as Cavouk). For honor. Imagine that eh?
Not a lot of honor in the music business.
Well, there can be if you run your career right.
You have also been able to perform with several family members over the years.
Yes, and it’s great. Now with my niece Kristin who is 40. She is a wonderful musician. Bluegrass is her thing. She plays wonderful bluegrass, and she sings. She sings on this new album of mine. And her husband Ivan Rosenberg is a fabulous dobro player. So that’s fun. I also have a grand niece, Lucie Cavoukian-Rosenberg, 3-years-old, who is playing in her own style.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are on and....
I recorded the song “On Hockey Days” in Calgary in 2014 (for the album “Love Bug”) with some wonderful musicians. Check out the guitar solo by Aaron Young.
You will never get a better hockey song than Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song” which he released in 1973.
You want to hear my song. My song is for the grassroots hockey mums and dads. The line is, “Off to the hockey rink we go.” It’s all about how they take their kids every week. There isn’t a song for those people except my song as far as I know.
Who are you rooting for?
I’m rooting for my song to be played in the arenas. That’s what I’m rooting for. But I am a Canuck’s fan.
You used to be known by close friends as Mr. Melancholy, and for being an unhappy, over-the-top perfectionist.
(Laughter) I traded perfection in for contentment a long time ago. I recommend that for anybody because we strive for excellence and we can take pleasure for that striving, and that’s what I do.
Are you happier as a person today?
I feel really good these days. Thank you. Hopefully, you can hear it. I’m having a really good time.
A friend suggested that after four decades you could do an adult tour. Both Beluga Grads, and their parents would come to hear your classic songs in concert.
It’s funny, but I hear that Fred Penner has been playing in pubs here and there. I said to myself that I should go and join him. We could sing “The Raff Came Back.” (playing off Penner’s signature song “The Cat Came Back”). I don’t know. I am enjoying myself so much now, and I have so much to do, including helping Bernie get elected. Where would I have time to do a different tour?
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia,, Ontario, and a consultant to the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
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