Anyone who grew up in Canada in the 70s and 80s grew up with the songs of Raffi. An Armenian born in Egypt whose family immigrated to Canada in 1958, he became a household name following the release of his first album in 1975.
He was in Montreal on Sunday to do a couple of performances at Theatre Maisonneuve and he did not disappoint. All proceeds went to the Raffi Foundation, a group that commits to helping the most vulnerable and recognizes that : “Every girl and boy is entitled to love, to dream and belong to a loving village and to pursue a life of purpose.”
The stage was set with an easy chair, a guitar stand, and a rug, giving audiences the impression that we were visiting him at home and not seeing a legend. He bounded on stage with a spring in his step, radiating more life at age 70 than most of us do at 30.
Though his beard and receding hair are now salt and pepper gray and he’s swapped his Hawaiian shirt for a long sleeved plaid one, his voice rings clear and true as it did 40 years ago and radiates the same level of warmth Gen Xers and Yers have grown to know and love.
His audience was comprised of parents who bought his albums in the decades ago and people who grew up with him, some with kids so small their feet barely reached the edge of their seats, some without kids who are there because they crave the kind of loving comfort he offers in an economy that won’t pay fair wages and is systemically trying to strip our rights away. I was of the latter group, and as he began to play I found myself singing and clapping along as I did at the age of five in my pajamas while my parents played his albums on vinyl.
Raffi announced that there would be singing, guitar, “and a lot of bad jokes.”
“It wouldn’t be Raffi without Dad jokes,” smiled fellow concert goer Sarah Anderson.
Raffi started with the classic tunes he’s known for, including Six Little Ducks, Tingalayo, and his version of the Jamaican folk song Day O. True to form, he always let the audience know when they should participate with strategically timed claps, call lines, or sound effects.
He played the annoyingly catchy Banana Phone song with a few ad-libbed lines, including, when singing about all the people he would call with said phone: “I’ll call the White House and have a chat!” It was a line that prompted cheers from the adults in the crowd but was undoubtedly lost on the children.
Though Raffi played tunes from his newest album, Dog on the Floor, he played up to what he affectionately refers to as the Baby Beluga Grads, people like myself who grew up with his music.
I was happy to see him play my favorite of his songs, Down by the Bay, a song that features a lot of silly animal rhymes and wordplay and leaves room for ad libs. When I was a kid in the 80s and 90s dabbling in poetry, I used to try and come up with my own lines for the song, and Raffi did not disappoint that inner child.
He jokingly attempted lines he knew wouldn’t work, causing older audience members to bust out laughing before he finally concluded with: “Did you ever have a time…When you couldn’t make a rhyme?!”
As he guided the audience, he chuckled, giving you the vibe of a favorite uncle or long lost grandfather. Though the concert was only about an hour long – a choice undoubtedly mindful of the limited attention spans of younger audience members – he packed as much as possible into that hour, playing two medleys of his classic tunes.
He often concluded a song by turning to the side, guitar handle out, back arched, in a nod to heavy metal and rock stars. Though most audience members were as well-behaved as could be given the young age of many, there were unfortunately at least two jerks who kept yelling demands for the song Baby Beluga, the Raffi concert equivalent of yelling “Do Stairway!” at a rock concert. Fortunately, Raffi remained unfazed and continued on with a smile, playing the requested song only when he was ready.
When the concert ended Raffi got a standing ovation that was well-deserved. Just as we thought it was over, he bounded back on stage to treat us all with an encore, including a new verse he wrote for Baby Beluga to address all his fans that have since grown up. In it was a call to action, telling us that we were the future, and to fight for social justice, equality, and against climate change. It was this final gesture that brought a tear to my eye and had me sniffling a bit as I left the concert hall.
After all, if Raffi believes in us, shouldn’t we?
Featured image via YouTube