He's no cartoon, kids. Gentle, joyful entertainment from a real guy named Raffi
EARLY one morning in the middle of a snowstorm not long ago, a crowd of hundreds was lined up outside a small Minneapolis store. Although the doors wouldn't open for at least two hours, everyone there wanted to be sure of getting tickets to a performance in nearby St. Paul. Once on sale, all 2,000 tickets were quickly gone. Such scenes are typical for the object of this box-office demand. He's not a rock star or name comic, but a gentle, bearded ex-folk singer whose magic way with children has made him one of North America's most popular kids' entertainers and the top-selling recording artist in that field.Skip to next paragraph
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He is called simply Raffi, and if the name doesn't ring an affectionate bell with you, chances are it's only because you don't have kids between the ages of 2 and about 8. But for millions of families - especially in Canada - Raffi is a familiar and well-loved figure, one of the few major children's performing artists who's a real person - not a cartoon character or TV advertising concept. He tours the United States and Canada to standing-room-only crowds. He appears at educators' conferences. Sales of his record albums are nearing an awesome 2.2 million. And many schools in the Canadian system, as well as some in the US, have made listening to Raffi albums a required experience in the early grades.
Much of Raffi's success lies in a simple but crucial fact: He takes children seriously and relates to them with dignity and joy.
``Sometimes people say to me, `Let's talk about your work for children first, and then we can talk about your serious work,''' said Raffi, who was in Boston recently for a performance. ``That kind of answer comes from not understanding that children are whole people, like you and me. Children are my serious work, and that means respecting them as an audience, the way I would respect any adult audience.''
How does this affect actual performances?
``If you approach children as if you aren't trying to put one over on them,'' Raffi says, ``that's the key. We have had many children's recordings that in tone were quite condescending - OK, kids, 1, 2, 3!' That kind of thing would drive you up a wall.''
Not a trace of that approach is detectable when Raffi is at work, which a look at his videocassette, ``Raffi - Singable Songs'' (A&M Video), will amply establish. The audience rapport is almost palpable as kids discover his beguiling repertoire of folk songs, nursery favorites, and original numbers - from ``Baa Baa Black Sheep,'' to a Negro spiritual, to his song about a whale called ``Baby Beluga.'' The numbers are all delivered in a clear, friendly, unaffected voice by a small, lone figure in a flamboyant sport shirt who sits on stage with his guitar.
And the children - often sitting with parents - react as they have for centuries to this approach, because Raffi is ushering them into a lyric folk tradition now lost to most of the adults in their society. It's a richly evocative world in which ordinary events take on a wondrous musical life - watching wipers on a school bus, brushing teeth, washing faces. In a pace beautifully gauged to the shifting tempos of young attention spans, Raffi breaks into slow rhythms or into softly conspiratorial tones that elicit ecstatic clapping and singing - or a hushed anticipation of the next number.