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FOR THE KIDS : Raffi Back in the Swim with New Album, Tour : Singing for the toddler set, Canadian entertainer has returned to circuit after a few years off.

March 02, 1995|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember Raffi? Think whale, baby whale.

Raffi became a superstar to the toddler set with his gentle hit, "Baby Beluga." (What parent hasn't heard that one a few hundred times: "Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea; swim so wild and you swim so free.")

So, what ever happened to the first big-time concert performer for kids, the one who started a trend in the 1970s, leading the way for a flurry of children's entertainers?

In 1989, at the height of his popularity, he dropped out of the kid market. Then, a somber album for adults about the endangered planet fell flat. But two years ago he came back. Last spring he recorded his first kids album in seven years, "Bananaphone."

He is swinging through Santa Barbara on Sunday for a 7 p.m. performance in the Arlington Theatre. (Tickets are $16.)

Is he the same sad-eyed, mellow-voiced Raffi? Yes and no.

"I'm having more fun on stage now," Raffi said during an interview from his Vancouver home. "There's a lot of play; we do some old favorites, some new ones from the album, some dancing, some bad jokes."

He won't be out there alone strumming his guitar. He has some backup from bassist Connie Lebeau and keyboardist Michael Creber.

As before, his shows are heavy on audience participation--singing, clapping, even dancing. "Parents sing louder than the kids." And the kids, well, he said he is noticing older kids in the audience--kids who grew up with Baby Beluga during the 1980s.

Raffi, 46, has been around so long that next year marks the 20th anniversary of his first album, "Singable Songs for the Very Young." Here was a guy some called the Springsteen of the preschool set, a guy with gold and platinum-selling songs about saving the world.

"After many tours and albums, it was time for a rest, reflection and rejuvenation," he said. "I'm glad I did it. I came back refreshed. I really missed it."

During that hiatus, he attempted a crossover into adult music with his cautionary album, "Evergreen, Everblue," about the endangered planet. His fans wanted the old Raffi back, and the album ran into further complications when he insisted that it be packaged in a more environmentally correct box.

He doesn't regret any of it. "Every person needs to grow and make discoveries," he said.

"Baby Beluga" remains his trademark song. It symbolizes his intense concern about the environment and global harmony. He penned it in 1980 after learning that the number of Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River had dropped considerably, and that their bodies were so full of toxins that they could be classified hazardous waste sites.

Raffi (born Raffi Cavoukian) has been a Canadian ever since his Armenian parents emigrated there in 1958. In the 1970s he was a folk singer on the Toronto coffeehouse circuit. His then mother-in-law asked him to sing to the children at the nursery school where she worked in 1974. Two years later he had produced a kids album; eleven albums followed.

His newest one, "Bananaphone," has a wide assortment of stuff that is parent-friendly. Sure, he's got some silly tunes like "The Gorilla Song" that preschoolers will like, but the album branches out.

During the Santa Barbara show, you can bet he'll do some of the new songs, especially the title track, "Bananaphone." The tune evolved through some onstage horseplay with a banana that kids went nuts over.

Tucked into the album are the usual environmental preachings. "Naturally" is a tune about organic farming, and "The World We Love" is a save-the-planet ode. And there's the unexpected, such as "The Shmenge Polka," an instrumental tribute to fellow Canadian the late John Candy.

"I was a big fan of John's," Raffi said. Although he didn't know Candy, he said the comic actor came backstage after one of his shows and the two of them hammed it up with a polka shtick Candy had done on television.

"I was on the floor," he said.

*

Jones Intercable is looking for a treehouse in the Ventura County area for a new children's television show called "Maggie, Me and the Mambo Tree."

The show, produced by Jones and Out on a Limb Productions, is a blend of Muppet-style puppets, animation and live action. Only the exterior of the treehouse is needed for the show, according to Dawn Callahan of Jones Intercable in Oxnard.

"We want it to be as big as possible in a big tree," she said. And it should look like the was created by kids. Call Callahan at 485-3888.

*

Could there ever be anyone quite like Ms. Frizzle, the frizzy, redheaded teacher of the "Magic School Bus" series by Joanna Cole?

Michelle Townsley, a sixth-grade teacher at El Rio Elementary School in Oxnard, probably comes close. (She's been known to appear at school in a red wig and eye-catching outfit in classic Frizzle style.)

An accomplished storyteller, Townsley will read some of her favorite stories for kids during a special story time at the Ventura Bookstore, 522 E. Main St., on Saturday at 11 a.m.

Details

* WHAT: Raffi in concert.

* WHEN: Sunday,, 7 p.m.

* WHERE: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara.

* COST: $16.

* CALL: 963-4408.

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