Raffi is the man whose music literally created the kids music section -- his first kids music albums, starting with Singable Songs for the Very Young, were so popular that record stores created new sections for his music.
This week, Raffi releases Love Bug, his first kids music album since 2002. His voice is in as fine a form as ever, and his gentle music will likely stir up fond feelings in the hearts of Raffi's "Belugagrads," those who grew up listening to, say, Raffi's Baby Beluga album and who now bring their own kids to Raffi's concerts.
Raffi and I chatted on the phone as he came back from a walk. It was an appropriate lead-in to an interview about his new album and his views on the (in)appropriateness of information technology and social media for kids.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Raffi: Of my father singing and playing accordion in Cairo, where I lived for the first ten years of my life. I loved to hear him play -- he would hold court with his big, booming voice.
I first sang in the Armenian Church choir in Toronto with my dad when I was eleven, twelve years old.
In my teenage years, I listened to the Beatles. I bought a guitar from a pawn shop when I was sixteen and sang in 3-part harmony with friends. We listened to Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan...
What are your memories of being outside, in nature?
When we lived in Cairo, I remember we'd get into our two-tone Studebaker and drive up to a cafe, the Cafe du Vue de la Pyramide -- the "Cafe with the View of the Pyramids." We'd play in the Cairo sands.
When I first came to Canada, to Toronto, it was quite different for me to experience sliding on ice.
My father took us to see the fall colors outside of Toronto. I loved it, so much so that I won a poster contest with my drawing of the woods. I was thirteen years old, and my poster won the Smokey the Bear Fire Prevention Contest from over 5,000 entries. I remember it like it was yesterday… it was titled "Keep It Peaceful."
It's been more than a decade since you last released an album of kids music, though you've been recording other music and commenting a lot on social media -- what made you want to go back and record a new album (Love Bug)?
I think it's going forward, actually. I always make music when I feel a new stirring, and I felt like I wanted to do one for the Belugagrads, the term of endearment for millions of fans. I wrote these songs about the joy of the real world. It's the first Raffi album in the digital era.
The [title track] itself came from a little guitar riff, you can hear it in the song, and for the first time I played the piano. I recorded the whole thing in my living room, and about 80% of the whole album was recorded at my home in Salt Spring Island, an island of about 10,000 people between Vancouver Island and Vancouver.
You've written about the potential dangers of information technology and social media, particularly for kids under 13, in your book Lightweb/Darkweb. How did those themes manifest themselves in the new album?
It was clearly a response to the digital overreach in our lives. It prompted a full-on celebration of the real world. [That connection] is the primary purpose of being human. It has nothing to do with InfoTech [Information Technology] devices. Those devices are not designed for kids' hands and laps.
My position -- that those of developmental experts like Terry Brazelton and Penelope Leach -- is that kids' primary attachment should be people -- that's what a child needs to bond with. The internet is the opposite -- it's shiny and flat. It's too seductive, too powerful an intrusion. The reports of tech device dependency and addiction in young people bears me out.
It's hard for middle-aged people to avoid.
Yes. Younger kids need to learn how to use these. It's not fair [to them].
You know, you could go back and listen to albums like Singable Songs for the Very Young at the start of your nearly 40-year recording career, and the listener would find those same themes of connection and natural world there, too.
Sometimes I think, why record a new album now? Have I already said it all? But there's room for creativity, to say things in new ways. Like, that impulse to hug someone, where does it come from? In "Love Bug," from viruses.
Have you noticed any changes in your live audiences from when you were last performing consistently? More faces turned down, looking at black or white rectangles?
Not at all -- it's a remarkably similar vibe compared to when I was doing it in the '90s. We ask the audience to turn their cell phones off, not record anything. The audience is all singing along.
I play a lot of the familiar songs, respecting the kids' needs for their familiar toys. Most of the adults are Belugagrads, so they're experiencing it in two ways, both as parents as well as in their hearts from childhood.
I'm a very lucky man.
Any other plans after the release of Love Bug?
Well, I'd like to eat lunch.
Then there's dinner...
That's one of my favorite subjects… But there are more shows coming -- I hope to announce some shows in the United States soon, they're more "select shows" rather than touring.
There are new songs brewing, I'll be recording a new CD this fall. It's a very creative time for me right now. I'm loving the power of music within me and the embodied joy young children are. I hope that my fans find diverse pleasures [on Love Bug], different moods to hear.
Photo credits: Billie Woods