Dudes! Raffi! The Interview.
If this news and name mean nothing to you then you’re undoubtedly younger than I. There was a time, oh best beloved, when the only name that came to mind when you mentioned “children’s music” was Raffi. He didn’t have a TV show, probably due to the fact that he abhors marketing to kids. Yet somehow the man managed to become the preeminent children’s entertainer for decades. So when I was asked to interview him I said, “Heck to the yes!” Short of being offered a solo show of Shari, Lois and Bram performing Skinnamarink, I could not have moved faster.
Facts You May Not Know About Raffi:
- He was born in Cairo, Egypt, to Armenian parents, immigrating with his family to Canada in 1958.
- His mother named him after the Armenian poet Raffi.
- Raffi ran a coffee house at the University of Toronto up until 1980.
- Raffi advocates for a child’s right to live free of commercial exploitation and he has consistently refused all commercial endorsement offers. Raffi’s company has never directly advertised nor marketed to children.
- Raffi was presented with the Fred Rogers Integrity Award by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, for his consistent refusal to use his music in endorsements that market products directly to children.
Of course for a lot of children’s librarians, Raffi remains the author of some of the most effective picture book versions of his various songs. Honestly, if you can name me a better Down By the Bay, I’d like to hear it. Ditto Five Little Ducks.
So why the interview now? It probably has something to do with his current spring concert tour, with U.S. dates in April, May and June. Tempted? You can check out his tour schedule at www.raffinews.com.
And now, the man himself.
Betsy Bird: This is a strange thing to say about the man who may, to this day, remain the most popular children’s troubadour in America, but I have no idea how you got your start. What led you into this nebulous world of children’s music in the first place? And, for that matter, why have you stayed?
Raffi: I’ve been asked this so often, I published an autobiography, The Life of a Children’s Troubadour, to tell my story. A struggling folksinger, I got my start in entertaining children in a nursery school on a rug on the floor with a dozen young kids and three teachers. That first session went well and I was asked to return. In 1976 I recorded a kids’ album, Singable Songs For The Very Young. Its instant popularity and that of its successor More Singable Songs opened up a whole new career in singing for children and families. Now in its fifth decade, it’s work I’m very fortunate to still enjoy.
BB: To your mind, what do you feel is the role of children’s music in the 21st century? What does it do that music penned for adults cannot?
Raffi: Songs for children offer an important, engaging form of play. With singable songs, kids get to laugh, sing, clap, move and express themselves. Playfully performed, with appropriate lyrics and repetition, recordings for kids can meet them where they live: in the theatre of their imaginative minds. Good music for young kids is designed with understanding and respect for their early years.
BB: What’s different about performing these days vs. when you were first starting out?
Raffi: Well, I’m decades older. My concerts now are arranged in weekend clusters, not for weeks at a time. And the audiences that greet me are full of “beluga grads”—adults who grew up singing my songs, such as “Baby Beluga.” They now experience the show not only as adults, but with their childhood memories, and also while sharing the experience with the delight of their kids. It’s quite a joyful phenomenon.
Raffi: My eclectic taste in music offers inspiration from a number of genres. I also get inspired by Nature, by dragonflies, owls, and butterflies. My puppy Luna has inspired three new songs on my upcoming album (due out in August) to be called, Dog On The Floor.
BB: Have you ever attempted a song that, for whatever reason, simply didn’t work as a performance piece? What makes a song successful with kids? What connects with them best?
Raffi: As my concert show is very much a singalong performance, I stay mostly with fan favourites. By now I have a good sense of what won’t work and what will. Generally speaking, a good kids’ song is musical, playful, and cheerful. A playful spirit connects well with kids. Rhyme, repetition and humour also help.
BB: Any advice for those new children’s librarians or bookstore workers that have suddenly discovered that they’re required to sing during story times?
Raffi: Choose simple songs that you enjoy singing. Invite kids to sing along. Have fun!
Thanks to Raffi and thanks to Beth Blenz-Clucas for connecting us. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to take my kids to his 4/8 concert here in Chicago. Woot!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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