With the release of Singable Songs for the Very Young in 1976, singer-songwriter Raffi Cavoukian kicked off a career as a superstar of children’s music—and kids around the world have been treasuring his toe-tapping tunes ever since. He’s also kept busy outside of his music career, campaigning for children’s rights, spreading environmental awareness, and keeping up with the Vancouver Canucks. So even if you’ve actually seen a goose kissing a moose down by the bay, there are likely a few things you didn’t know about the golden-voiced singer.
1. HE’S ARMENIAN-CANADIAN BY WAY OF EGYPT.
Raffi Cavoukian’s grandparents fled their homeland during the Armenian Genocide in the 1910s. It was a combination of luck, endurance, and his grandfather's serious knack for art—a talent he used to make fine portraits—that finally brought them safely to Cairo. For decades, his parents and their families lived happily in the Egyptian capital, where Arto Cavoukian, Raffi’s father, even managed to establish a studio for his work.
But by the late 1950s, political upheaval in Egypt and a less-than-tempting repatriation program for Armenians narrowed the family’s options for a happy life—so the Cavoukian family, including 10-year-old Raffi, emigrated to Toronto, Canada, in 1958. The family had some connections there, and besides, as the singer wrote in his autobiography [PDF], “Montreal had too much snow, and New York was too big” for his father.
2. HE’S A HUGE HOCKEY FAN.
As soon as his family arrived in Toronto, Raffi became hooked on Canada’s national pastime. In fact, his first musical compositions in English imitated play-by-play commentary broadcast during Hockey Night in Canada games, and often featured the Toronto Maple Leafs, his favorite team at the time.
While he never joined a team himself, Raffi has been a committed fan of the sport, and has cheered on the Vancouver Canucks since moving to British Columbia in 1990. He also released a song that was inspired by his great love for the game and his appreciation for the on-the-ground hockey supporters that make the NHL possible. He told the Canucks' NHL website:
I live on Salt Spring Island, the only community of 10,000 people in Canada that doesn’t have a hockey rink … Just think of the devoted hockey moms and dads that have to take a ferry to [Vancouver Island] for their kids to play hockey. There’s a lot of dedication and support being shown there and it really moves me and that’s what gave rise to the song.
3. HE’S NAMED AFTER A FAMOUS ARMENIAN AUTHOR.
Raffi explained in his 1998 autobiography that his first name is a tribute to Hakob Melik Hakobian (pen name: Raffi), a renowned 19th-century Armenian poet and writer [PDF]. The tribute almost didn’t happen, however, and children around the world might now know him by a different name if Raffi’s mother had stuck with tradition:
"Normally, I would have been named Asadour after my maternal grandfather, but my mother had other plans. She went to her father for a heart-to-heart chat and said that much as she loved him dearly, she was not so fond of his name … Asadour brushed the matter aside with a colorful Turkish expletive, saying his name was of little concern to him and she was free to choose another … [and] the way was clear for [my mother] Lucie to name me after one of the most celebrated Armenian writers and one of her favorite authors."
4. HE WAS A GIGGING FOLK MUSICIAN FIRST …
By the early ‘70s, Raffi had been regularly performing his and others’ folk tunes in bars and cafes from Toronto to Vancouver and back (his wife Deb, a teacher, was their household's primary wage earner). A year before his debut kids’ album took Canada and the U.S. by storm, he released the 1975 folk-country album Good Luck Boy, his first-ever record.
5. ... AND CALLS BEING A CHILDREN’S SUPERSTAR HIS “ACCIDENTAL CAREER.”
During the year he eventually made it big, Raffi was supplementing his income with musical visits to elementary school classrooms through a program sponsored by the Mariposa Folk Fest. He chose the day’s songs according to grade level and based his performances and interactions on a general sense of each classroom dynamic. But that changed one day when the singer suddenly connected with students on another level—one that would guide his career and philanthropy for the rest of his life. As he wrote in his autobiography,
"On that memorable day, I was seated in front of about 30 kids and, as I prepared to sing the first song, a light went on in my head: I suddenly noticed that each member of the group was a single, individual person. It was a profound wake-up call for me to see who I was with … I never again missed the individual child within the group, and it was this experience that kindled my desire to understand the childhood years more fully."
According to his website, Raffi’s “accidental career” took off just a few months after that perspective-changing day, letting him swap out performances in classrooms and smaller venues for sold-out theater shows.
6. HE TURNED DOWN A GIG AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN.
Even as his popularity soared, Raffi was careful not to lose sight of the unique needs of his young fans—namely, the fact that kids enjoy and relate to music differently than adults do—and, he wrote in his autobiography, he’s worked to respect and emphasize those needs whenever possible. For example, when organizers encouraged him to play a concert at Madison Square Garden to as many as 18,000 audience members, he said no. "I felt the show might have created a media sensation," he wrote in his autobiography, "but it wouldn’t have provided a quality experience for my young fans.”
He points out, too, that many of the approximately preschool-aged kids in his fan base had trouble translating the intimate experience of listening to his tapes at home into one that would work in a packed arena, where audience participation is virtually impossible. His autobiography recalls a story from the mother of a 5-year-old Ontario fan who'd been extremely excited to "see Raffi" during an upcoming concert date:
"But on the big day, when mother and daughter walked into the crowded auditorium, the child became very upset. When her mother wanted to know what the matter was, the girl tearfully asked, 'What are all these other people doing here?' In the child’s mind, 'going to see Raffi' had meant a private visit, and not the scene that confronted her in the concert hall."
7. HE THINKS CHILDREN ARE MORE "REASONABLE" THAN ADULTS.
One reason that Raffi resonates so well with children, perhaps, is that he has significant and sincere respect for them as intelligent human beings. “Children are the most reasonable people I know," he wrote in his autobiography. "Their days are spent trying to make sense of the world, searching for meaning, figuring things out. Their perception is magical, and their questions are intelligent requests for information.”
8. A CHARACTER ON THE SIMPSONS, “ROOFI,” IS BASED ON HIM.
Raffi may find children pretty reasonable, but The Simpsons writers behind the 2004 episode “Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays” seem to have felt that kids can be just as wild as adults when it comes to their favorite music. While “Roofi’s” repetitive songs drive Homer, Bart, and Lisa out of their minds with annoyance for much of the episode, they appear to have the opposite effect on the town’s toddler population, whose adoration finally erupts in destructive rioting.
9. A BELUGA WHALE INSPIRED “BABY BELUGA” AND A LIFE OF ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM.
In 1979, Raffi visited the Vancouver Aquarium and instantly fell in love with Kavna, a beluga whale there. "I set out to write a song about this beautiful creature," he wrote in his autobiography. "I asked Deb for advice and she said to make it about a baby whale because young children love babies and it would further endear the song to them. Right she was! 'Baby Beluga' became an instant hit and caught the fancy of listeners young and old."
Then, in 1988, Raffi saw a presentation on the struggle of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River, which crosses American and Canadian borders and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. At the time, the beluga population had dropped from around 5000 animals during the second World War to just 450—a fact that left Raffi stunned. “Even worse,” he wrote, “autopsies of dead belugas washed ashore showed that the creatures had died painful deaths from cancer and other internal failures, their flesh covered with lesions and so riddled with toxins that the bodies were rendered hazardous waste sites.”
After this revelation, the singer began directing his efforts in the studio and out toward ecological and environmental advocacy. In addition to the acclaimed environmental education-themed album Evergreen Everblue (1990), he wrote and produced the 2007 rockabilly track “Cool It,” a climate change call-to-arms with scientist David Suzuki chiming in on the chorus, that served as the theme song for Suzuki’s Canadian tour promoting climate-directed action.
10. HE’S BEEN A MAJOR FORCE FOR PROMOTING CHILD WELFARE FOR DECADES ...
In addition to using his music to stick up for kids and the world they’ll inherit, Raffi founded the globally recognized Centre for Child Honouring, a non-profit organization dedicated to bettering kids’ lives today and tomorrow, and co-edited the 2006 anthology Child Honouring: How to Turn This World Around (which had a foreword by the Dalai Lama). He also co-founded Red Hood Project in response to the epidemic of online bullying that’s led to teen suicides in Canada and the U.S., and penned Lightweb Darkweb with further insights on how social media is affecting youth. In 2005, he called upon the head of Canada’s biggest wireless company to please stop marketing to children—something Raffi was proud to say he’s never done.
11. ... AND HE URGES “BELUGA GRADS” (FANS THAT ARE ALL GROWN UP) TO GET INVOLVED, TOO.
Raffi’s been making a point of pushing his fans from the ‘70s and ‘80s to share the very grown-up task of building a better future for the kids of today and tomorrow. After about a decade of keeping a low profile, he recently stepped back into the spotlight with a very active Twitter account, a TEDx performance in Victoria, British Columbia, and nationwide tours—all encouraging “Beluga Grads” to vote, “to help restore the ailing world they are inheriting [with] child-honouring communities and sustainable societies," and to address "the pervasiveness of environmental degradation and social inequities worldwide, and the global state of children," according to his website.
12. HE’S WON A NUMBER OF AWARDS FOR HIS ACTIVISIM.
Raffi has received the Fred Rogers Integrity Award from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, several honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, and an environmental ambassadorship from the United Nations, among other things. At a 2006 event celebrating Raffi and crew's work in developing the philosophy of child-honoring, the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia told the crowd,
"I believe that if we have the good sense to follow Raffi, his friends and associates, along with that notable generation of ‘Baby Beluga’ grads into the future, that our combined actions will have a winning effect on developing a more socially responsible global civil society … I could wish for nothing more profound than that we follow Raffi’s directions toward a new world where all children, like all people, are honoured."
13. HE JUST RELEASED A NEW SONG—THIS TIME, IN SUPPORT OF BERNIE SANDERS.
Check out the story behind the song on Raffi’s Facebook page.