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A Voice for the Young : After a seven-year respite, Raffi is back with a new album and a performance at Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday.

March 03, 1995|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNIVERSAL CITY — For most recording artists, taking what amounts to a seven-year break from the job would be career suicide.

But for Raffi, arguably the most suc cessful children's recording artist of all time, it was a rejuvenating experience that has only heightened his popularity.

"I'm having the most fun I have ever had," said the man who has helped pave the way for a slew of children's entertainers. "I'm just in a very playful mood right now. When you're away from something, you get to rediscover why you liked it so much."

Raffi, 46, never really went away. He just went on to other projects. He traveled, pursued environmental interests, released concert recordings and an album geared toward adults titled "Evergreen, Everblue," and generally revitalized himself after carrying the burden of being labeled the Bruce Springsteen of children's music.

His latest release, "Bananaphone," has been nominated for a Grammy. It is pitted against Disney's soundtrack from "The Lion King," Kenny Loggins' "Return to Pooh Corner," Manhattan Transfer's "Manhattan Transfer Meets Tubby the Tuba" and J. Aaron Brown's "Little Sleepy Eyes."

"I work from the heart, not a schedule," said Raffi, who will perform at the Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday. "That being the case, it's nice to genuinely feel good about what I'm doing. I create when I feel the stirring to do so."

Raffi's return to the studio for his 12th album has created a stir in sales for an artist who has reportedly sold more than 7 million records. The title track for his "Baby Beluga" album in 1980 became a near anthem for the under-10 set.

"Most of the sales in our store in children's music come from Raffi," said Andy Johnson, assistant manager of the Tower Records store in Sherman Oaks. "When someone like Kenny Loggins does an album for children, there's a big push. But Raffi is the steadiest seller by far."

"Bananaphone" grew out of a gag that Raffi performed at his live shows. The fruit as an imaginary communication device, he said, is a statement about society's current fixation with computers, technology and interactive entertainment.

"These things are useful devices so long as they don't contribute to toxic pollution of our world and the jamming of our own creative software," he said. "My concern for children is that they don't need to be interacting with a machine. They do need direct interaction with other people.

"As for the video and technology craze, I want to be a voice of balance, the one who says, 'Remember the power of music, remember how the music stirred your heart.' "

Raffi, born Raffi Cavoukian in Cairo, was stirred by the music of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Pete Seeger while growing up in Canada, where he moved with his family at the age of 10. All of those influences, as well as swing, jazz and country, are apparent on "Bananaphone."

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"You hear a folk base to what I do but there is also a contemporary feel," Raffi said. "A diversity of styles is something I had to work at. The genre that I work in allows for that kind of eclectic mix."

Eleven of the 16 cuts on "Bananaphone" were written by Raffi and Michael Creber, who plays keyboards in the touring band. The record also includes Raffi-ized versions of traditional songs such as "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and "Down by the Riverside."

"Michael and I enjoy a quick, witty repartee on stage," Raffi said. "I just thought, we should take this fun and carry it into songwriting. It produced some wonderful stuff."

The success of "Bananaphone" is likely to make record company searches for marketable children's recording artists all the more competitive.

"It's a critical time for children's audio because there is only so much (retail) shelf space," Raffi said. "It seems to me that it's easier to market characters as opposed to human beings."

Raffi said two more records in what he called a "Bananaphone" trilogy will be released in the next two years. He has no plans for reducing his workload. And though he may veer again to explore new interests, he is most comfortable with the audience he knows best.

"It's really gratifying to know that my fan base is still there for me," he said. "And now there's a new twist to my concerts.

"Teen-agers are coming to see me as a nostalgia act. They come in groups of four or six or eight, wave their arms throughout the show and belt out 'Baby Beluga' like there is no tomorrow.

"If I stay healthy and continue to do this, we may see the children of the Beluga generation at my shows."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Raffi.

Location: Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City.

Hours: 7 p.m. Saturday.

Price: $15 to $18.

Call: (818) 777-3931.

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