RAFFI COME HOME
Now the stage is bare and there's emptiness all around. Facing his audience after almost seven years in the wilderness, it's only natural that this beloved performer should be wracked with fear. Will the old magic work again? Will this crowd get fidgety and have to go to the bathroom a lot? Does he still have--IT!!?
A single white spotlight beams on the dome of his red baseball cap. Slowly it trails down to reveal the rest of him in an immaculately white suit. At first, the fans seem confused about whether they're looking at a doctor or a very tall glass of milk. Out of the darkness, flashing red bulbs form huge letters 20 feet high which begin to spell out his name--R A F F. . . . He waits for one more vowel, then the spokesman for an entire generation begins to sing.
Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring
Ding dong ding dong ding dong ding
It's no baloney, it ain't a phony
My cellular, bananular phone
Raffi is back, the kids go wild.
In 1990, after selling 17 million children's albums and creating a kiddie-entertainment empire, Raffi tried to make it in the adult world. He released an environmental-awareness album titled Evergreen, Everblue; it did okay, but it was no Bananaphone, his latest million-plus-selling offering. The man apparently has come to grips that he should be--as Mr. T used to say--"doin' it for the kids."
While Raffi's return to the children's entertainment arena wasn't quite as dramatic as that of Elvis' 1968 comeback special, expectations ran just as high. The comparison isn't as far-fetched as it seems. After all, both men have recorded "Old MacDonald" at one time or another, and Raffi, the 46-year-old singer who hails from Canada, has long been referred to as "the Elvis of the preschool set." (Actually, in these politically correct times, the press has been tagging him "the Springsteen of the preteen set," as if it's morally preferable comparing Raffi to the Boss, a known adulterer, than to the King, a pill-popping good ol' boy in a karate suit. Go figure.) But unlike Presley, Raffi didn't fritter away the better part of a decade sleepwalking through lousy movies with lousier soundtracks and insulting the intelligence of his devotees.
In 1988, Raffi became depressed and angry about the pollution, overpopulation and deforestation he saw all around him. Rather than risk frightening the kids with the sad news that we were slowly poisoning ourselves with toxins, he retreated from the children's music world to address pressing environmental concerns.
Evergreen, Everblue, 1990's ecologically concerned adult-pop, also signaled the start of Raffi's involvement in the successful campaign to abolish the CD long box in the United States. During this time, the United Nations appointed him goodwill ambassador for its Environmental Programme, even sending Raffi to Rio for the Earth Summit in 1992.
"I think the reason Evergreen, Everblue didn't cross over into pop, which is what we were hoping for, was that I was so strongly identified as a children's performer," says Raffi, stating the obvious. "It speaks of the strength of love that my audience has for me as a singer who provides music for their families."
Evergreen, Everblue was hardly a bust anyway, selling in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies. But Raffi's never been the kind of performer to get hung up on numbers. If he was, he'd have long ago maximized his exposure by starring in his own kiddie TV show, like fellow children's artists Fred Penner or Sharon, Lois and Bram. Both of these acts are now readying their own interactive CD-ROMs for next year, something you'll never catch Raffi doing. He's penned several biting commentaries in Billboard magazine about the importance for children to interact with actual adult humans. Play the title track of his latest opus and you'll hear his philosophy clear as a bell: "Don't need computers or TV to have a real good time." Although there are three Raffi concert videos available, the artist staunchly refuses to accompany his audio recordings and children's books with video counterparts. Given this "no videos" stance, it's a wonder the press hasn't started calling Raffi "the Pearl Jam of the toddler brigade."
But why should Raffi prostitute his art this late in the game? He's maintained his integrity for 17 years, selling 17 million records worldwide without being rammed down the throats of kids and parents alike. Raffi's a word-of-mouth, grassroots phenomenon, and except for sweater-hugging, sneaker-tossing Fred Rogers, Raffi is the only children's performer who hasn't cashed in on his popularity with shameless merchandising and huckstering. You won't find Raffi and Sony jointly marketing My First Bananaphone. There'll be no product tie-ins with Chiquita, no Franco-American Raffi-olios with his mug on every can. No hard sell. "Parents appreciate that because they're getting hit all the time," notes the soft-spoken singer.
Speaking of something parents get hit with all the time, let's talk about Barney. It's hardly fair to blame Raffi's seven-year sabbatical for the emergence of this most loathsome of children's performers. Yet Raffi's disappearance may have inadvertently set the stage for the Purple One to gain his stranglehold on the under-5 set. But just as Barney has an uncanny ability to get into the hearts of children, he's equally adept at getting under the skin of parents. If Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street weren't on the same PBS station as Barney & Friends, many elders would probably put a channel block on the remote control. It's hard to know what's more offensive--hearing Barney's head-splitting, high-pitched squeals, or watching those sickeningly plucky kids the show's creators seem to delight in casting.
When asked if he feels any responsibility for this sad turn of events, Raffi laughs uncontrollably for a good ten seconds. While he's too diplomatic to come right out and say that Barney is a shuck, an insipid, helium-ingesting irritant created solely for the purpose of separating parents from their money, it speaks volumes that Raffi never refers to the detestable dino by name.
"The unfortunate thing with that character is that it's a trivialization of almost everything in life," he remarks in disapproving tones. "Everything is superhyped. It doesn't feel real, so we as adults react to that. Children may dig it because they don't have as much life experience as we do." Much of Raffi's appeal lies in that he's an adult who sings in a normal human register. "I'm not trying to be something I'm not. I'm not a character. I'm a real person." What we know about Raffi the real person is that he was named after a very famous Armenian writer who also used Raffi as his single pen name. While Bananaphone Raffi has written 14 popular children's books, "other Raffi" is considered the Shakespeare of his country. It's doubtful anyone could confuse Five Little Ducks or Shake My Sillies Out with the Bard of Armenia.
Raffi grew up hearing a lot of folk music in his home. "My dad used to play the accordion and sing folk songs when I was younger. That's why I love the accordion now." Bananaphone contains mucho accordion, especially on "The Shmenge Polka," an instrumental tribute to fellow Canadian John Candy. Far from the typical, nursery-rhyme sing-alongs, Raffi's 12 albums utilize a smorgasbord of musical genres from his own adult tastes: Zydeco, ragtime, Dixieland and Western swing are a few.
There is nothing, however, in his catalogue that can even be remotely considered rock. When told the new album's "The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell" is reminiscent of a quieter track off XTC's Mummer or Nonesuch, Raffi admits to not being familiar with the band. What modern music does Raffi listen to? "Is Dire Straits considered modern?" Raffi asks. "I'm big on country now, Wynonna, Mary Chapin Carpenter." Evidently, the man who wrote "Let's Make Some Noise" on his first album wasn't seriously suggesting that the playroom rock with megadecibels. No wonder parents love him.
When Raffi began performing in Toronto coffee houses in the early Seventies, fellow Canadians like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot were spearheading the singer-songwriter boom. Two decades later, Raffi seems reluctant to talk about this early period in his musical development, except to acknowledge that it was a struggle. At one point, he almost gave up making music full-time to become a carpenter. There exists an album of original Raffi music released during this era, but when pressed for details, Raf intimates that he's going to have to hurry this interview along. The mind reels--could this mysterious album contain embryonic versions of "Brush Your Teeth," "Peanut Butter Sandwich" and "Spider on the Floor"--all songs that would eventually wind up on his first children's album, Singable Songs for the Very Young?
Raffi subscribes to the theory that song ideas can come to you at any time from anywhere, and, as a songwriter, you must always be receptive to them. "It's a mysterious process, to be sure. Sometimes, you can work on a song for six months, planning it and gaining confidence in the idea. But sometimes it can come to you in a flash. When you wake up at 2 o'clock in the morning, a song like 'Bathtime' just writes itself."
Think of all the world-weary tunes that have been written about the lonely life on the road--the bad cuisine, the flea-bitten accommodations, the long goodbyes, the lousy company, etc. Then consider that it was in some hotel room in St. Louis that "Bathtime" flowed into Raffi's brain, demanding to be written:
The water is nice and warm
Makes me feel at home
Like a baby whale
It's my bathtime
In my tub, tub, tub
I'm gonna scrub, scrub, scrub
Every part of me
It's my bathtime. Certainly a far cry from "Homeward Bound," but had a dispirited young Paul Simon taken a nice hot bath, instead. . . . Before Raffi's rise to fame, no other singer had actually devoted his entire career to making music exclusively for children. Yet here was Raffi's destiny calling him into heretofore uncharted territory. Perhaps these songs were there all along, simply suppressed for fear that Raffi's coffee-house peers would not be able to grasp why there were "Five Little Pumpkins" sitting on a gate.
Around 1974, Raffi reconciled with his tortured muse. He began visiting nursery schools and classrooms and performing folk songs. The children enjoyed it immensely. So did he. This positive experience led to his recording Singable Songs for the Very Young, a collection of traditional standards and charming Raffi originals that he released on his own Troubadour label in 1976 (the year that gave birth to another children's movement, as well, punk rock).
By 1978, the record he was selling to parents from the trunk of his car--the only album in recorded history to carry the legend "great with a peanut butter sandwich"--went gold. This without any national distribution! To date, it has sold triple-platinum in Canada and has achieved gold status in America. If that doesn't impress you, note that Singable Songs and the three albums that followed it were engineered by Daniel Lanois, who has subsequently worked with such rock heavyweights as U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan.
If you chart Raffi's musical growth like that of your own children, like so many notches on the kitchen wall, you'll find that his first three albums form a trilogy based around the theme of simple tunes easy for young throats and minds to grasp. For his fourth release, Raffi took a giant step into the future with Baby Beluga, the Rubber Soul of his catalogue. It relies less on traditional children's fare and interweaves more mature, modern themes about the natural world and our relation to it.
"I look back and hear the progression from album to album," says Raffi, without a trace of self-aggrandizing. "The key to artistic longevity is growth and renewal. In a way, Bananaphone is my Baby Beluga of the Nineties."
With plans afoot for another two albums this year, including a spoken-word bedtime release, it looks as if Raffi the children's performer is here for the long haul. As for Raffi the businessman, as long as he sticks to the credo "satisfy the customer," those children he delighted when they couldn't even walk will come back to Raffi with children of their own. Talk about working the eternal circle.
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