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June 30, 2022

PaRx People: A Conversation with Raffi

A renowned singer known by his first name alone, Raffi Cavoukian was a pioneer in quality recordings for children on his independent label, Troubadour. For millions of fans, Raffi’s music was the soundtrack of their childhoods, and they took his signature song “Baby Beluga” to heart. These “beluga grads” now share his music with their own children. Raffi has been described by the Washington Post and the Toronto Star as “the most popular children’s entertainer in the English-speaking world” and “Canada’s all-time children’s champion.”

Raffi is a music producer, author, entrepreneur and ecology advocate. In 2010, he founded the Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring—a global movement that views honouring children as the best way to create sustainable, peacemaking cultures. Raffi has received the Order of Canada, the Order of BC, the U.N. Earth Achievement Award, and four honorary degrees.

In 2020 Raffi took on a new project—producing an album by new children’s singer Lindsay Munroe, I Am Kind: Songs for Unique Children. The mother of three kids with autism, Lindsay has created a beautiful album of engaging, positive songs for young children. As well as producing, Raffi sings along with Lindsay on a number of songs.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Raffi to talk about his early and ongoing connections to nature and how they inspire his songwriting and work, his longstanding advocacy for a healthy planet, and how health professionals can inspire families and children to spend more time outdoors.

Could you share your early experiences, education and interests from childhood on, and how they influenced your career path and love for nature?

I'm very pleased to speak with you today, Melissa. Your question is already reminding me of how long my nature association has been. I'll tell you that my Armenian family was in Cairo, Egypt when I was born. So I spent my first 10 years in that desert environment, but also by the River Nile—we used to drive to Alexandria on the Mediterranean for vacation sometimes.

An indelible memory in my mind is Sunday mornings. Often after church we would go to a dinner club just down the road from the Pyramids called Café Vue des Pyramides. It was quite an experience just seeing the Pyramids; for one thing, up close, and then seeing them from the café you're still kind of in their aura. I remember the sand beneath my feet, the Cairo sands, and the sights and smells.

Raffi (in striped shirt) with his mother and brother in Alexandria, Egypt, and winning first prize in a poster contest at the CNE in Toronto. Photos supplied.

Then fast forward 10 years and we come to Toronto. My father used to like to take us for a drive just north of Toronto to Belfountain, and to see the fall colours of the leaves made such an impression on me. When I was 13 years old, although I didn't spend a lot of time in nature, I won first prize at a Smokey the Bear Fire Prevention poster contest at the Canadian National Exhibition. I won $100 in 1961! My drawing was entitled Keep it Peaceful, and it showed a forest scene, and the prominent middle tree had a sign that said “No Hunting” with a bird perched on it. From my early years, it seemed I had a nature appreciation. It's good to remember that. I think when you have an early love of nature, and early experiences of celebrating nature, especially getting rewarded for it by winning first prizes to contests, all of that stays with you, right?

In my early twenties, I was learning about the need to become responsible citizens, and as I grew older I certainly heard the call of those who are urging us to be a sustainable society.

I often say, when it comes to sustainability, if given the choice, none of us would choose to pollute our own homes. Why would we do so collectively? It makes no sense.

I'm surprised that decades after the word “sustainability” came into use that we don't hear more about it on the national news at night. You would think it would be a permanent fixture in our imaginal and public discourse.

In fact, I'll mention something else to you. I'm on a roll now! (laughs) My Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring is all about a vision that came to me in 1997, as a way of thinking about what's most precious to us. Not only the young, for whom we have great love, but all our hopes and dreams and wishes for our young. And that's going to happen on only one planet that I know of, and that's our big, beautiful planet Earth. So online at raffifoundation.org people can take an online course in Child Honouring. There are nine principles of Child Honouring, of which Sustainability and Safe Environments are two. I think sustainability should be something we think of every time we look at the face of a young one that we love.

Raffi’s daily view from his front deck on Salt Spring Island, BC. Photo credit Raffi.

You live on beautiful Salt Spring Island in BC. How has nature been important for your health and wellbeing throughout your life, and the pandemic?

Well, I have a great view from my front deck of water and islands and ocean and mountains. It's an amazing view—it's one of the reasons I chose my home, so that feeds me daily. I think it's a huge sort of inspiration that's so present in my life. My own property is an eight-acre property. Four of the acres, which are the usable part, are my back woods, as I call them, and I take my dog Luna for a walk in my back woods, and I just marvel at the moss that grows on rocks.

You know, this 70-something-year-old person still marvels a lot. Salt Spring Island is really a rock. I have something that looks like a backyard, like a lawn, but it's not really a lawn. You can see the rock. I marvel: how do things grow on a rock? How do 50, 70 foot trees, tall Douglas firs, how do they grow on this rock? I think the way they do it is that it's a distributed root system. The roots can't go straight down, so they go sideways, horizontal—smart. So I'll just say that marvelling at nature's ways is good learning, lifelong learning.

Those who, let's say, live in an urban setting have a very different experience of nature, if they're living in a detached house with a yard, or living in a tall apartment building where they're always on the elevator, and their home is a little strata way up high. That's a very different experience.

So depending on where we live, I think it behooves us to make the time to get out into the world that sustains us. This is not just some theory it’ll be better for us. The natural world sustains us. We have to remember that, and every day marvel, celebrate, enjoy.

Many of the lyrics in some of my most-loved songs of yours speak to nature, how we need a healthy world to thrive, and inspire us to protect it. What inspires you to write songs like these?

Well, nature does. I mean, when I met a Beluga whale—her name was Kavna, at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1979—it just blew my mind, this magnificent creature. And I was helped by the trainers at the aquarium to come close to the pool. One time the trainer said, “Just lean over like this, and she'll come up and give you a kiss.” I said, “You gotta’ be kidding me,” but sure enough, this 1,200-pound creature came out of the water, majestic like you wouldn't believe, this beautiful white whale, and just did that (touches his cheek) so gentle. Can you imagine how I felt? I mean, this creature could’ve knocked me over (snaps fingers) like that. She did it twice, and I couldn't stop talking about it for weeks. So that led me to write a song which set the whale free—swim so wild, and swim so free.

Kavna the beluga whale kissing Raffi at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1979. Photo supplied.

And then a song like “All I Really Need” celebrates the basics of life. Clean water for drinking, clean air for breathing—I mean, we don't think of clean air as nature. But who makes clean air if not nature? We don't. It's not our doing, is it? Clean water. Our job is not to mess it up, but unfortunately we've done a lot of that worldwide. If you're thinking sustainability, you gotta’ think restoration, otherwise, from what point on are we supposed to be sustainable, right?

In 1982 I wrote a song called “Big Beautiful Planet” and I'm really proud of this song. I still sing it in concert sometimes, in a medley of songs.

There's a big beautiful planet in the sky
It's my home, it's where I live
You and many others live here too
The earth is our home, it’s where we live

I think children who internalize that from a young age are perhaps given a lovely gift to last a lifetime. The Earth is our shared home—all of us live on it. Just like the song “One Light, One Sun”. That song I wrote in 1985.

One light, one sun
One sun lighting everyone
One world turning
One world turning everyone

These are the ways that song can help us feel the interconnectedness of our human species. The glory of our species is that we are diverse. Can you imagine how boring it would be if everyone looked like us? Diversity is a Child Honouring principle.

I talk about difference as being the variety that makes life interesting for us. We don't have to fear difference. We can celebrate it.

You're giving me goose bumps, by the way.

I like that! Do go on. (laughs)

Raffi celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Baby Beluga” with Yo Yo Ma. Photo credit Raffi/YouTube.

What lessons do you think children have to teach adults about our relationship to nature and the planet?

They remind us to wonder when they ask us questions of the natural world. Let's take the time to listen and respond. I remember when I used to live on another island not far from Salt Spring, an island called Mayne Island, a small one. I used to have a young friend there, and when he was five we used to go for walks, and he'd be noticing all kinds of stuff. I'm going, wow he's so observant. I would say, “Good noticing! Good for you, good noticing, you did it again. Wow! What is it about that?”

I’m engaging a young, inquisitive mind and heart, who's only 5 years old, but is just delighted because there's so much to see, and everything is new for this boy. He was a lovely young friend of mine, and he's now, of course, older and married, and lives overseas. But I think children can remind us to stay curious and marvel.

You’ve travelled to many places as an artist. What’s your favourite place in the world to spend time in nature?

Well, I don't have one. I don't have a favourite place because I love so many places. I mean, I really do. I've been on the east coast—I’ve been to Cape Cod. Of course, I live on the west coast now, but almost everywhere I've been, there's so much to be impressed by. Natural wonders are everywhere.

And this is what I say to people. I say beauty is important to us. Seek it out, celebrate it and enjoy it. It's important. It's not something to be taken lightly. Look for the beauty, just bits of beauty everywhere.

I've been to folk music festivals, where a lot of the time it would be outdoors. Oh! One memory just came back to me. I was hitchhiking across Canada. I was in my early twenties, and I had a backpack and a guitar. I got to Banff, Alberta, and I’d heard about these mountains, the Rockies. I got to the campsite and it was dark, and I hadn't seen the mountains yet. And in the morning I got up, got out of my tent and I went, Whoa! This country of ours—how lucky we are to live here.

Raffi with Luna at home on Salt Spring Island. Photo supplied.

What's your favourite activity to do in nature?

Well, it depends where I am, and the time of day. Obviously I love to go for walks often with my dog Luna. Sometimes friends of mine take me boating out into Ganges Harbour and beyond, and that's just lovely, so beautiful, you know, taking in the surroundings of the water and the islands, and having a little guitar sing-along with a couple of friends.

Also, beach walks are beautiful because there's so much going on on the beach, especially at low tide. The beaches on Salt Spring aren’t sandy beaches. They're rocky. But if you put on the right shoes, and if you're lucky enough to have a young one with you, you've got all kinds of exploration going on. It becomes a science lesson, whether it's starfish on the west coast here, or the crabs scurrying about, or the seaweed everywhere—it's a lot to see and marvel at. I think about the volume play of tides, as I call it. An enormous amount of water is receding, and then coming back twice a day. Apparently the moon has something to do with that.

But let me say something else. We don't have to sentimentalize nature. We can love and enjoy it, but there may be parts of it that we feel uncomfortable about, and that's okay.

You can't like everything in life, can you, like even with those we love. There's some parts of those we love that drive us crazy, and we kind of go, oh, that's just how they are, especially if they don't mean any harm by it.

Just as animals have a need to protect themselves against other predators. Like the porcupine has an incredible defence system, don’t you think? (laughs) We’ll be looking for the non-toxic bug repellent, or whatever, because I can't stand mosquitoes—I mostly avoid them. Mother Nature is at times fierce and ferocious. It's just part of life; there's aspects that are challenging. Life is magical and challenging. So I think the mature approach sees our place in the nature of things. And treads lightly, and hopefully, wisely.

Raffi performing onstage in Halifax. Photo credit John David.

You have a long record of climate advocacy, and wrote a song in honour of Greta Thunberg and youth climate strikers in 2019. Why is being a leader in the climate movement so important to you?

I think what's important is to be active in the climate movement. I don't know if you see the poster behind me over there? Do you see it? Raffi wants you. Climate mobilization.

I've been active on the climate threat since 1989, when I first heard a long CBC Radio series called It's a Matter of Survival with David Suzuki as host. He brought that issue to my attention. When I understood early on that unless we took serious action nationally and internationally to bring down greenhouse gas emissions we might reach a tipping point where the unravelling of the planetary balance of nature could be irreversible—that climate change could be irreversible—that word sent shudders within me. Not long after I paused my children's entertainment career for a couple of years and recorded my ecology album Evergreen Everblue, on which there's even an ode to Mother Earth called “Our Dear, Dear Mother”.

It’s an emotional thing to talk about the climate emergency and where we've been with it for 30 years. Had we made the bold moves we needed to make 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in this now-or-never scenario the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change keeps reminding us that we're in.

I've kept up with the reading of books. Seth Klein's A Good War is an excellent book for Canadians, for everybody to read, because he reminds us that in the Second World War once Canada figured out that it was a life or death crisis, an existential crisis, we changed our society very, very quickly to address that crisis. So he suggests, and I agree with him, that that's what we need to do now. That's why that poster is there. Mobilization is the key.

We're going to need mandated changes, not just voluntary, although I'll take rationing any way I can get it. It's interesting that you don't hear the word “rationing” much, do you. But there's an equity about rationing. If everyone was bound by the same rules, as in wartime, that’s how it was. We vigorously got into the spirit of doing our best to protect ourselves, and it's the same thing with the climate threat.

Raffi's climate mobilization poster. Image supplied.

We need to protect not only our children's future. They have the moral high ground. They hold the moral card because it's their future more than ours. They have more future to live than someone like me who's in my seventies. But the point is that it's our present as well. We're seeing the extreme weather—events from flooding to ice storms of tremendous magnitude, once in a lifetime storms, and the heat dome that British Columbia got last year. We want to be able to enjoy a summer, not to dread a summer.

This is the stuff of life now and into the future. And I say to people, forget the term “the environment.” Always think nature. That's one of the reasons I'm happy to talk about Nature as a theme today.

When you think ecology, think of a young child you love. When you think climate crisis—and I know there's a natural reason to turn away from it all—oh, not the climate crisis again—think of someone you love.

So, having said that, I’ll just mention I wrote a couple of other songs that are climate songs. One was for David Suzuki in 2007. He had a cross-Canada bus tour to bring attention to the climate emergency. That song is called “Cool It”, and it's a rousing rockabilly rhythm song. Cool it, cool it, cool this planet down. Pretty to the point, don’t you think? I wrote a ballad recently called “Do we love enough?” That's my other climate song.

What role do you think health professionals have to play in inspiring people to protect nature and the planet?

I think many of them are reminding us that our mental health requires us to spend time in nature. So get outside, people, we know that by now. Just like the song All I Really Need, written in 1979, I said, clean water, clean air. It's a travesty that there are some Indigenous communities in this country where clean drinking water is still not readily available. So healthy living isn't just what health professionals can be reminding us of. It's something that should be top of mind for all of us, and something shared as a topic within our families, with our kids.

Photo 8: Flowers in Raffi’s garden on Salt Spring Island. Photos supplied.

Do you have any tips specifically for health professionals who want to inspire children to move more, spend more time outside and protect the earth, like you do so well?

Well, let me answer you this way: I would invite everyone to go to raffifoundation.org and take the online course in Child Honouring. It's an 18-hour course and self-paced; it's interdisciplinary. It's got a ton of resources at your disposal. The reason I mention the course in answer to your question is that people who take it tell me that they feel empowered. If you feel that you are a change maker, and inspired to do your utmost to go deep in your desire to give your best to your children, that's when not only do you feel gifted by feeling so enabled, but you're then apt to give your children the broadest and deepest consideration of what you might bring to their lives.

Child Honouring is based on a Covenant for Honouring Children—and I think it’s a lovely way to close our conversation.

We find these joys to be self evident: That all children are created whole, endowed with innate intelligence, with dignity and wonder, worthy of respect. The embodiment of life, liberty and happiness, children are original blessings, here to learn their own song. Every child is entitled to love, to dream and belong to a loving “village.” And to pursue a life of purpose.

We affirm our duty to nourish and nurture the young, to honour their caring ideals as the heart of being human. To recognize the early years as the foundation of life, and to cherish the contribution of young children to human evolution.

We commit ourselves to peaceful ways and vow to keep from harm or neglect these, our most vulnerable citizens. As guardians of their prosperity we honour the bountiful Earth whose diversity sustains us. Thus we pledge our love for generations to come.

Raffi and his guitar, outdoors. Photo supplied.

Discover more about Raffi’s life and work here.

Have a question for us? Get in touch.


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