The Sunday Magazine

Baby Beluga's 40th anniversary: Why Raffi thinks we need to 'build back better' from the pandemic

It’s been 40 years since Raffi released his defining song Baby Beluga. After decades of entertaining thousands of children, the outspoken singer-songwriter reflects on the tragedies of 2020, the state of North American politics and his claim that having faith in children is the key to a sustainable future.

The children’s entertainer reflects on his defining song, the state of politics and why we need to honour kids

Raffi's beloved song for children was inspired by a beluga whale he saw during a trip to Vancouver. (Onnig Cavoukian, supplied by Raffi Cavoukian)

Like so many others, beloved children's entertainer Raffi has had a turbulent 2020. 

"It's been really hard … I'm not made for isolation," he said. "Some days are better than other days."

Despite his own struggles, Raffi still finds time to reflect on the positives in his year. 

"The year has brought some surprises for me, so my joy is in the music that's come my way that I might not have got into," he told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay. 

It also happens that 2020 is the 40th anniversary of Raffi's adored song Baby Beluga — and the singer-songwriter said he was astonished to receive an invitation to create a new version of the song from legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

"We did it and I video recorded it from my apartment and he did his part from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives," Raffi said. "We also added a 'grown-up beluga' verse at the end that I have been singing in the encores of my concerts." 

"It's for my millions of beluga grads: my fans who have grown up with my music."

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Origins of Baby Beluga

By the time Raffi penned the song that would elevate his career, he had already made three albums for children. 

It was 1979 when he chanced upon a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium while attending the Vancouver International Children's Festival. 

"I fell in love with this gorgeous creature," he said. "My then-wife, who was a kindergarten teacher said, 'make the song about a baby beluga.' And I said, 'Why?' She said, 'Because children love babies.'"

Raffi, in his trademark Hawaiian shirt and slippers, on stage in 1984. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Since the release of the accompanying album in 1980, Baby Beluga has gone on to inspire generations of children. 

The song's unforgettable melody and light lyrics are not the only things that have contributed to its lasting appeal.

As Raffi observes, it profoundly marked his development as a songwriter by kick-starting his desire to write songs about tough issues for kids — such as ecology and climate change. 

"You can help people with challenging subjects like climate change," he says. 

"If you sing about it, you're going to remember it." 

Speaking out

Songs aren't the only form through which Raffi confronts difficult issues. 

More recently, Raffi has been active on social media — tackling what he views as the divisive nature of politics in the West. 

While his songs adopt a more playful nature, when it comes to talking about tough topics, Raffi's Twitter feed is another story. 

"I think people get used to it: seeing me resist fascism day-in, day-out, as I've done for over four years ..." he said. "I'm glad that I played my small part in defending democracy." 

"That's how I see it: when democracy is threatened, when democratic institutions are being trashed and degraded, it's up to every single person, every single member of society to speak up."

Even though people were forced to stay home in 2020, Raffi said he sees some hope in the political action that also defined this year. 

We have a diversity of human beings on this planet, and that diversity is the joy of being human.- Raffi

Inspired by the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, Raffi penned a song called Black Lives Matter to Me. 

He continues to be inspired by the work of the activists in undercutting what he views as the white supremacy in contemporary society. 

"We've got to respect and honour every single person in our society," he said. "We have a diversity of human beings on this planet, and that diversity is the joy of being human."

Child honouring

Respect is key to a philosophy Raffi advocates: child honouring. 

At its core, child honouring proposes that the key to a sustainable and peaceful society is shifting how we treat and regard children. 

"The very young, who have been my constituency for a long time, are society's first learners — you might say they're society's most valuable players," he argues. 

"If their first impressions of life are affirming, then they can go on to have a sense of confidence and their true self can shine."

Raffi in 1984, four years after the release of Baby Beluga. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Although Raffi has long been an advocate for this approach to child rearing, he acknowledges that the pandemic has dashed a lot of children's hopes for the time being. 

"It's harder for kids to deal with because they have less things that they can do," he said. 

Include all of the challenges right now in your spacious heart- Raffi

To counteract the negativity that kids experience during the pandemic, Raffi argues that adults need to allow more room to understand children's feelings at this time of crisis. 

"Keep broadening that love portion of yourself," he said. "Keep broadening it, keep opening to what's happening: include all of the challenges right now in your spacious heart."

With the challenges of the contemporary world, Raffi still has room to remain hopeful — and his desire to perform still shines through. 

"I'm looking forward to singing Baby Beluga with my fans," he said. "Feeling the love of thousands of voices in the room, feeling the joy."

Interview produced by Peter Mitton. Edited for length and clarity.


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