Subversive Sounds

Genteel children's troubadour or firebrand political activist? Finally, Raffi revealed.


Moore Theater, 1932 Second Ave., 206-628-0888, $21


RAFFI: A RITE OF passage for parents everywhere. Fifty-four-year-old Raffi Cavoukian, the Cairo-born, Toronto-raised folksinger-turned-children's troubadour, called "the Bruce Springsteen of kid's music" by some, has been ubiquitous since debuting in 1976 with Singable Songs for the Very Young, going on to notch platinum status with several of his 13 albums as well as his three concert videos (which were recently compiled onto the DVD Raffi in Concert).

The songwriter inevitably becomes part of the family vernacular once a household begins to transition from simple nursery rhymes to songs with a bit more musical and lyrical substance. Not to slight, say, "A-tisket, a-tasket/I bought a yellow basket," but it does have a certain mind-numbing capacity; and while lines like "All around the cobbler's bench/The monkey chased the weasel/The monkey thought it was all good fun/Pop! goes the weasel" are slightly more complex, they still frustrate at the existential level.

In fact, by some measures, Raffi could be considered downright subversive. His massive popularity, when paired with an unwavering devotion to the interior lives of our children, makes him an ideal vehicle for dissemination of philosophies possibly at odds with those of the Bush administration. On his latest Rounder Records CD, Let's Play, concepts such as take care of the environment ("Arbutus Baby"), nurture the young ones ("It Takes a Village"), and, most simply but most poignantly, be kind and good ("May There Always Be Sunshine") are the rule.

Which is why I find myself wanting to speak to Raffi. That, and the hunch that, as a first-time dad, I'm lucky there's a songwriter like Raffi who makes music my 21-month-old son can relate to, but who isn't compelled to dumb-down the message or climb into a big purple dinosaur suit and giggle like a chimp dosing on helium just to hold my kid's attention.

Plus, and I'm not ashamed to admit it, there's something about Raffi that tweaks my inner music-collector geek. For the toddlers in the audience, there's the occasional "Eensy Weensy Spider" or "Baa Baa Black Sheep," of course. But Raffi delights in subtler presentations as well. A Celtic/sea-shanty-flavored version of "Yellow Submarine," for example, highlights Let's Play, complete with wigged-out background effects that reference the Beatles' original psychedelic ditty. His adaptation of the traditional spiritual "Down by the Riverside" (on 1994's Bananaphone) is brilliant also; it was a mainstay of the '60s folk-protest movement thanks to its peace-bearing message ("Gonna lay down my sword and shield/ Down by the riverside/Ain't gonna study war no more"). In let's-attack-Iraq '02, the song's required listening.

"It is a mix of things that I'm presenting, so those [nursery rhyme-type] songs have their place," explains Raffi. "But I don't think you could stand a whole album of them. You can present songs that are accessible to different listeners depending on how old they are and still make them interesting for the adult ear as well. It just depends on what clothes you dress them up in."

Indeed, in the Raffi musical wardrobe is everything from hot cha-cha Dixieland (the hilarious "Bananaphone"—if Raffi's the Springsteen of the kid set, then this pun-infested, ultra-catchy anthem is his "Born to Run") to worldbeat (the Afro-pop-flavored Jane Goodall tribute "Jane Jane") to breezy-swingy guitar jazz ("Let's Play," containing the telltale line "Let's play, come on, on this jazzy Django day!").

"I'm working at multilayers, and it's kind of fun do it," the songwriter continues, "yet it's not getting in the way of a 5-year-old enjoying it, either. Now, I would never knowingly throw in an inappropriate lyric. But there are puns, and the beautiful thing about punning is that a pun is completely innocent. It has double meanings, but no sexual innuendos; and I love innocent humor, which I hope these songs are full of. In 'Let's Play,' I had great fun putting in this line: 'Play's the thing, a magic ring.' Because I got to reference Shakespeare and Tolkien in the same line, boom-boom, two classic authors."

Engaging, witty, and generous in conversation, Raffi nevertheless pauses when I raise my "subversive" angle and label him a political activist. (He's a longtime supporter of children's rights and pro-environmental causes; most recently, at the Ontario "People and the Planet" conference this past June, he gave a talk entitled "A Child Honouring World." In interviews he's frequently cited folksinger activists such as Pete Seeger as personal inspirations. And if you go to his www.raffinews. com Web site, in addition to numerous social-cause links, there's a free MP3 of his latest composition, "Turn This World Around," a tribute to the work of Nelson Mandela.)

"Well, certainly the values are clearly in the songs," he says. "This career is about children and their right to be considered. But I view what I'm doing in the realm of the deeply humanist, if you know what I mean. We all want a world that works for as many of us as possible, not just for the privileged few. That's the spirit in which I make my music. So I don't consider myself to be an 'activist' or 'political,' no."

Just the same, as our conversation winds down, I tell Raffi that his dedication of an instrumental ("Shmenge Polka") on Bananaphone to the late, great comedian, John Candy would seem to suggest the songwriter does have his sly moments.

"Ha-haaa!" Raffi explodes with laughter, gleefully chanting the title: "Shmenge Polka!" "I'll never forget it! John came to a gig of mine in L.A. in 1984, and we were splitting our guts backstage doing this polka-duo schtick. So when he passed away, I was really saddened and thought, well, I'll write a polka. Haven't written one since—but I was really pleased the way that one turned out!"

And Candy, wherever he is, is no doubt pleased himself. Boys and girls, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, we give you—Raffi. The last of the great subversives? Just maybe. . . .

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