Ep. 9 | Raffi | All We Really Need
In this episode, beloved children’s troubadour, environmental activist, and author Raffi, offers his holistic vision for honouring children and respecting the earth. He says,“If we are serious in our desire to give our best to the young, we need to know the interconnected world they live in, the connection between person, culture and planet.” Woven together with his enduring music, Raffi reflects on his past while boldly speaking to our future.
RaffiRaffi Cavoukian, known simply as Raffi to his millions of fans, is a children’s troubadour. He’s spent the last four decades, advancing respect for the earth and respect for children, believing these occur in a simultaneous and symbiotic relationship. Raffi has devoted himself to "Child Honouring." By aligning with the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, he offers his platform as a singer and author to recognize the importance of childhood, and to cherish the contributions of the young as necessary to our shared humanity. https://www.raffifoundation.org
Transcript | Ep. 9 | Raffi | All We Really Need
Musical interspersing of Raffi’s song Baby Beluga
Rachel Cram – Well Raffi, thank you so much for allowing us to come over to Salt Spring Island for this interview. It’s such a pleasure to speak with you today.
Raffi – It’s wonderful to meet you and have this conversation.
Rachel Cram – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well this is the fortieth anniversary of Baby Beluga, which is amazing! Forty years!
Raffi – Yes. A little white whale on the go.
Rachel Cram – Exactly. When you started, did you have any idea when that song came out, how long it would last? The reach that it would have?
Raffi – No.
Rachel Cram – Short answer.
Raffi – Short answer. No. How could I? In 1979, when I wrote it, I’d heard about whales being in some trouble in the oceans and there was a Save the Whale movement but I didn’t want to write a lament. I wanted to write a love song because when a young child loves an animal like a beluga, of course they can grow up feeling protective. So that was the idea.
And then my wife at the time, I was married to a wonderful kindergarten teacher, and she said, “Make the song about a baby whale.”
And I said, “Why?”
And she said, “Well, children love babies.”
So, I was fortunate that I took her advice.
Rachel Cram – Your children’s music does have an open poeticness to it that does allow it to expand. I think that song probably has shifted in the minds of people. And that’s part of what we want to talk about today. But before we get to that, I’d love to start with a question that we open with for many of our interviews and just hear a little bit more about who you are as a person.
Raffi – Yeah course.
Rachel Cram – OK. Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at 7 and I will show you the adult.” So Raffi, I’m wondering, is there a story or an experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Raffi – I’m tempted to answer “no” but that wouldn’t be true.
So I was born in Cairo of Armenian parents and came to Canada when I was 10 years old. And I had to learn a whole new culture. I had music and storytelling in my childhood. My father was a brilliant artist painter and internationally renowned photographer. But before that he was a singer, with a very rich voice. I sang with him in the Armenian church choir in Toronto for a few years. He was an accordion player. My mother used to rave about Arto’s accordion playing. “Oh, the tango!” she would say. “When Arto played the tango.” She would shake her head.
So, you know, I came from his musical side and then my mother storytelling. Oh, she could keep you wrapped with stories. And I think both influences have played well in my career.
Rachel Cram – The first time I ever heard you was on Mr. Dressup and you sang a song, “You Brush Your Teeth” song. And I sang that through my whole childhood as I brush my teeth and I have no cavities today. So, I’d like to thank you for that!
But growing up with your music, there was always a real thread of understanding of identity in there I think, and I wonder is part of that a result of being an immigrant and coming to a new country?
Raffi – Yes. That’s insightful actually because as a teenager I thought about identity a lot because my parents were trying to protect the Armenian culture that they wanted their children to grow up in know more about. But here I was with the universal mind and heart that beat inside my chest. I was thinking, “Well wait a minute. Every culture has its great authors, poets, architects. Being Armenian doesn’t make you superior. So there was quite a tension there between the old and the new.
Rachel Cram – How did that land for your parents?
Raffi – Well I think my curiosity prevailed in the sense that I went where I had to go with my inquiry into identity. And then, part of the strength of being an immigrant in a new land is that you bring the eyes of the other into this culture. You can be more critical as you look around. One of the things I remember my brother and I first noticed when we went to school in Canada was, we said to each other, “Wow! What a great place! The teachers don’t hit you!”
And, in fourth grade, I’d forgotten my lunch and Mrs. McKinnon actually offered me her sandwich. I still remember that kindness.
Rachel Cram – Your music holds a real call to kindness, and a real call to connection, and in a language that is accessible to children but it’s also very resonant for adults as well. I’m thinking of songs like Everything Grows, and All I Really Need, and Like Me And You. All those songs, like Dr. Seuss I think, and other really strong authors, it speaks to children but it also speaks profoundly to the adults that are reading along with them or singing along with them. Was that part of your plan from the beginning? Did you intend to speak to both children and adults at the same time?
Raffi – Well I certainly was aware that adults would be around when children were listening to my, what we used to call my records. So, I not only sang with respect for the young child, my guiding light has been that word respect and all that it stands for, but also, I learned that what kids need is for someone who meets them halfway. You don’t try and WOW them, impress them, you’re impressed by their intelligence. So, you sing and play to that.
Rachel Cram – You as the performer are impressed by the intelligence of the child.
Raffi – Yes of course. If, you know, once I started studying early childhood I saw it as a gateway into understanding my own becoming; the person that I became. But more importantly, early childhood, that time and place that we all came from. It is a time and place of wonder, curiosity, the theater of the mind.
It is a place where you try on the world for size, through play, through imitation. So critically important because you’re making pictures in your mind of how you want things to be; how you want the world to be; how you see yourself moving in the adult world. It’s a magical thing. It’s a world of wonders.
Rachel Cram – Your book Light Web Dark Web, advocates for concerns of the screen world, the tech world, wanting to protect wonder and imagination. Especially for children.
Raffi – Yes, because, when you’re very young, your job as a young human is to interact, play with, get messy in and enjoy the three dimensional wonders. That’s your job. Your job at the age of three or four or five is to feel the slow rhythms of the seasons, to be dreamy in a slow summer. It’s not to respond to hyper speed digital shiny tech devices.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, yeah, I think what we’re guarding is the exploratory mind. And young children think outside the box because they don’t know that any box exists. That’s the fear I think often with screen, you’re starting to limit that exploratory mind.
I’ve heard in another interview, you said, “We’re born with radical inquiry and it behoves us to question what we don’t understand.” Your songs invite and encourage a probing mind as well as your practice. And I heard this story that you told about a 3 year old boy asking a very probing question when you were doing a concert. I’m wondering if you can tell that story because I just thought, that’s a great example of how you live it as an adult. You don’t just preach it, you live it.
Raffi – It was a concert where I came back on stage for an encore and as the applause died down a young voice from the front called out, “Why is he coming back?”
Rachel Cram – Because he doesn’t know what an encore is.
Roy Salmond – Exactly. So everyone in the theater laughed except me. I guess I was channeling my inner Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers.
I said, “Actually, when you think about it, that’s a very good question.” And I turned to where I thought the question was coming from and I said, “Thanks for asking, because as far as you knew, I had sung my last song because I said it was my closing song and then I’d walked off the stage.” I said, “Sometimes, when the concert goes really well, people keep on singing with the hope that you’ll come back for another song, and that’s why I came back.”
Rachel Cram – And yes it’s a beautiful example of honoring the child. We want to laugh in these situations because we’re charmed by the sweet naivety of the question, but it’s not about that.
Raffi – No, exactly. Young children are humanity’s primary learners. Evolution has seen fit for that time to be the time when the most sophisticated tasks are learned. Early childhood is the most important time in the human lifetime developmentally speaking, because it seems to set the whole emotional tone of being for us, with a lifetime of outcomes, either positive or negative.
So, to simplify it, if you are a young child impressionable as you are and you experience your early years, your first taste of life, as a series of constraints and then ridicule and this that and the other maltreatment. My goodness, you’re going to be constrained in your joy for life. There’s gonna be a contraction within you of sorts as you defend yourself. Comparatively speaking, if your early years are life affirming in the sense that you see yourself in the loving respectful mirror that your adult caregivers and extended family are holding up to you, then you feel seen and heard for who you feel you are. And that can lead to a lifetime of positive outcomes. To the true self growing in confidence and no false self is needed to act out in maladaptive ways. Just to say, “See me.” Because you already feel seen.
Rachel Cram – Well, I think part of this ties into how we’ve understood children, because 40 years ago, when you were starting, we were working with B.F. Skinner who was talking about us all being blank slates.
Raffi – Behaviorists. Yes.
Rachel Cram – Very much a behaviorist approach. You started it at a time when everything was very much based on a rewards and punishment way of raising children. In the language that you’re using right now is that children need to be seen and heard for what they are, as whole people, right now, as a child.
Raffi – Yes. That’s why Respectful Love is the first principle of my child honouring philosophy. Not just any kind of love. Certainly not coercive love or overbearing love. Respectful love.
Musical interspersing of Raffi’s song Love Bug
Rachel Cram – The word love I think, has gotten so misshapen in our world.
Raffi – In every age, I think artists come forward and redefine love. Love is one of those mysterious, infinite powers, that’s sung about, written about. We are essentially creatures of love. That’s what we’re here for. We are craving love because it’s an irreducible and universal need.
Rachel Cram – Mahatma Gandhi has this quote. He says, “If we want to reach real peace in the world, we must begin with the children.” And your work Raffi, emphasizes simultaneous sustainability of earth and child. And I can see how honoring the earth honors children, by giving them a home to live in, hopefully for a long future. How does honoring children honor the earth?
Raffi – Ah, good question. I think children who know themselves to be capable agents of creation, children who know their place in the wondrous world because they have celebrated the world of wonders from a young age. And being guided to do so, and inspired to do so, are less likely to trash their surroundings.
I think we can teach sustainability from a very young age. Kids have, well they have an unadulterated view of things in this sense. And they have a generosity that doesn’t get enough credit.
Rachel Cram – We know now that 90 percent of our values, our attitudes, our beliefs, are formed before we’re five years old. So the work that you have done is so profound as millions of children have listened and grown up with your albums. I’ve heard you quote a poet that I love as well, John O’Donohue, saying, “Infants come fresh from the eternal.” What does that stir in you?
Raffi – Well, Kahlil Gibran wrote a beautiful book called The Prophet in which he says some amazing things. One of them is, “Your children come through you but they’re not of you.” Which is interesting for a guy who’s thought about identity for a long time. Because, we come through our biological parents, he’s saying, but we’re not of them. It’s profound.
So, for me, at one point the question ‘Who am I?’ changed into a deeper one. ‘Whose am I?’ I’m a child of creation. So this is quite big because if you understand your biological roots, which are important of course, but you also understand that you are from a grander that transcends your biological roots, that’s huge.
Rachel Cram – It changes everything.
Raffi – Yes it does. Exactly. Our uniqueness is what we have in common. We share this. So you’re as unique as I am. Your stories are as unique as mine are. That’s the paradox of being human. No baby’s fingerprints are the same with anybody in the whole wide world of seven point three billion people. How wondrous is that? That’s an indication that our uniqueness matters.
Rachel Cram – Well there’s this dance with diversity that we do throughout our whole lives. And that is, for your Beluga Grads as you call us, people that have grown up on your music, to reckon with. That there is this diversity that we need to celebrate. Does that carry on from what you’re saying there?
Raffi – Well diversity is the second principle of Child Honouring. If you’re curious about the world, you’ve got to be curious about other cultures. Why fear them when you can find them interesting? Why not be curious about, even say, “Oh, you do it that way. Oh, those are the foods you love. Can I taste that?”
Here’s the great joy of Child Honoring. Here’s the positive vision. If you think about a six month old baby, in a number of different cultures. That child with different colored skin, different facial features, from different ethnicities and regions of the world. It’s the same physiological being. We are essentially the same physiological beings at the start of life. Hello! That’s wonderful!
Secure in the knowing of how much we have in common, we can then celebrate our differences because they’re interesting. This is the glory of being human and we get to celebrate and enjoy it.
I remember in 1985 I wrote a song called Like Me And You, where I named children. I think it was, Janet lives in England, remember that? Pierre lives in France. Bonnie lives in Canada.
Musical interspersing of Raffi’s song Like Me And You
So the chorus of that song says each one is much like another. A lot like me and you.
Rachel Cram – Knowing that songs and that music is such a wonderful instrument for connection Raffi, as you go into this next chapter of your life, with your child honouring philosophy and program, how are you tying connection in there?
Raffi – Well Child Honouring is all about connection actually. If we are serious in our desire to give our best to the young, we need to know the interconnected world that they live in. And it behooves us to understand the connection between person, culture and planet.
Rachel Cram – As I was preparing for this interview, a visualization that came to me of you, was that of an artist who paints in different forms in different periods of their life. Because I think Child Honouring is what you’ve always been about. And you painted in one way, maybe during your first decade, and it’s changed, and maybe this is your cubism period right now. But I think,
Raffi – Indeed. That’s good.
Rachel Cram – You’ve always been painting that. You’ve always been painting that. And it’s exciting to watch how you continue to put forth beauty into the world.
Raffi – Well thank you so much for saying that. It’s wonderful to have some of what I’m doing sort of mirrored back to me in this way. Currently what I’m really excited about is what my foundation spent over a year developing. It’s an online course in Child Honouring, that people can take at their own pace. You know, as you start with respectful love as the first principle, you do find as you go through all the principles, that the word respectful shines through all of them. Which is really interesting.
Rachel Cram – You hold a unique space I think, in the political landscape, to be able to say things that might sound political but they’re not really political at all because they’re coming out of your deep and obvious love and care for children. And the love has grown out of the care.
Raffi – Thank you. Yes. Because without exception, every single one of us is here to love. Every single one of us needs love as an entitlement. We are entitled to love because we need it developmentally. This is not a frill.
Every single one of us from any culture is the same. That’s what we need. We need respectful love. I don’t know how much plainer it can be. We cry because we’re sad. We lose someone. We’re in grief. These are all human attributes.
So, in 1979, the U.N. dubbed that year The International Year Of The Child, that ten years later culminated in the United Nations Convention On The Rights Of The Child. As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Baby Beluga, the song and the album, and I was aware of that, I wrote, “All I really need is a song in my heart, food in my belly and love in my family.”
Musical Interspersing of Raffi’s song All I Really Need.
So it’s about the basics of life which are again, universal. Song in one’s heart. Food in the belly. Love in the family.
“And I need some clean water for drinking.” Whether you live in Flint Michigan or First Nation communities that still have water issues, that becomes not just a line in the song, that’s life or death.
“And I need some clean air for breathing.” Whether you live in a place that’s choked with wildfires or you live in New Delhi where people are wearing masks just to get around.
These are the real basic needs of life. So that song, All I Really Need, was written in that universal spirit. What’s a song that every child in the world could sing. Oh this one.
If you look in the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights Of The Child, three tenets are core and they are; protection of child, provision and participation. There is an African proverb that says, ‘The young trees are a forest.’ So protection, provision, participation. Child Honouring. There it is.
Rachel Cram – With that participation, I think we’re starting to hear that more. Because I think the voices of children have always spoken out. But you know, thinking of Gretta Timberg, you’ve even written a song inspired by her. The Parkland kids with gun violence.
Raffi – Yes! Exactly.
Rachel – Sophie Cruz, when she ran to see the Pope. I think the media now is covering it more.
I think children have always spoken out.
Raffi – Well, and Billie Eilish, who won five Grammys. 18 years old. Talks about not being able to sleep at night because of her fears for the future. This is the global climate emergency that we now find us in. Which oddly enough, may have a unifying way about it.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, you’ve called this The Third World War.
Raffi – I’m saying we’re in a climate World War 3. A war of survival. A truly multinational war that’s co-operative, unlike any other war. And this is one that we could all enlist.
Rachel Cram – Reclaim what war means.
Raffi – A war of survival, so our children can sleep at night. So they can dream of futures. Because our future is in jeopardy.
Do we love enough to change the world such that we go from polluting ways to a clean energy economy. And we must do it quickly. In the next ten years. Ten years to secure the future in the climate decade of the twenty twenties. Join the climate revolution. Enlist today.
Rachel – That might be our last word.
Raffi – If only I could say it with feeling.
Rachel Cram – That Armenian blood. It just comes out right? Full of passion.
So Raffi, sadly we’re going to need to start to wrap up this conversation. I’m just wondering, is there one last thought you want to share, as we nurture the universal child in our children but in ourselves as well?
Raffi – Thank you for asking. Well it’s been said that the messages that I’m now sharing, I’ve been there all along in my songs. I would say, maybe that’s true. But certainly there’s an urgency to this moment that is very new in the global climate emergency that we share. In emergencies you need emergency responders. So, at this point in time we have the technological means to create a society whose energy comes from renewable sources. We have that. It’s now, how quickly will we make the transition? That’s the only question now.
Dream big. Act bold, so that we can collectively and individually respond to the emergency. That is love in action. That is response-ability. That is your power.
I invite you. I invite you to join me.
Rachel Cram – Raffi, thank you so much for the passion you put into this interview, for the years that you have spent pouring into our lives and for what you’re doing now.
Raffi – Thank you. I’m honored to speak with you. Thank you.