Canadian Reader’s Digest, March 1984
Feature, 1700 words On a Saturday morning at Toronto’s Harbourfront, the big-top tent is wet and drafty, but there is a tangle of strollers in the corner, and every seat—or lap—is taken. A young man with a guitar, Hawaiian shirt and black beard comes onstage, waves and says, Hi, boys and girls. Hi, moms and dads. Hi, Raffi, they scream back. Did you come to sing with me today? Raffi asks, and there is no doubt that they did. From the first note of the first song, I’m in the Mood for Singing, the audience of 500 is singing, swaying and clapping to Raffi’s infectious songs. At Althouse College in London, Ont., singers Sharon, Lois and Bram launch into She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, and four-year-old Jennifer Mitton joyfully joins in. As they move on to Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, Jennifer waggles her index finger and shouts out the advice of the doctor in the song: Put those monkeys straight to bed! Normally shy, she astonishes her parents by climbing on the stage at show’s end to tell the trio that she wants to see their piano and she knows lots of their songs. Backstage after the University of Manitoba’s staff Christmas show, a nervous young woman introduces herself to children’s singer Fred Penner, a tall fellow with a big bow tie and flowered vest. Her son is dying of leukemia, she says, and every day in the hospital playroom they sing along with Penner’s record, The Cat Came Back. His music is their point of contact, the best way the family can connect with the boy now. I just wanted you to know how important you are to us, she says. Just plain addictive. Across the country, Canadian children, from infants to eight- and ten-year-olds, are listening to a new breed of entertainers who sing just for them. We sing Sharon-Lois-and-Bram songs around the house all the time, says Susan Metzger of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., mother of Shauna, 7, and Sarena, 11. After supper we put the records on, and the girls dance and sing in the dining room. In the summer we put the stereo speakers outside and play them for all the kids in the neighborhood. At Wellington School in Winnipeg, where Isle Udow teaches English as a second language to immigrant children, a favorite is, I Had a Rooster, a traditional folk song the class learned from a Fred Penner album as part of a lesson on farm animals. And for many young families a trip in a car without tapes of Raffi, and Sharon, Lois and Bram is unthinkable. Sharon, Lois and Bram, says Michele Landsberg in The Toronto Star, are the best musicians now recording for children in North America—and probably the world. The St. John’s Evening Telegram describes Raffi as a modern-day Pied Piper, and, writes Lesley Francis in the Edmonton Journal, Fred Penner is just plain addictive. Lorraine Thibeault, assistant professor of music education at McGill University, considers them among Canada’s leaders in music education for children. I tell my students, Introducing Sharon, Lois and Bram in the classroom turns children on—and when they go home the music remains in their heads.’ The junior music boom began quietly in the late 1960s in Toronto, when two young mothers—Lois Lilienstein, a jazz and classical pianist recently arrived from Chicago, and folk singer Sharon Hampson—each pioneered a children’s music program, Music for Children, co-sponsored by the YWCA and the North York libraries, and Mariposa in the Schools (MITS), a pilot project for the Mariposa Folk Festival. They met through a mutual friend and soon started singing in each other’s program. As real, live musicians singing especially for children, they were an enormous hit from the beginning. By the mid-1970s, as word about them spread and MITS began to distribute catalogues, its 15 artists were reaching 50,000 students in hundreds of schools. New, larger audiences required new performers. In 1975 Sharon auditioned Raffi Cavoukian for MITS. A 27-year-old bearded coffee-house singer, Raffi had begun working with children just the year before. Born in Cairo of Armenian parents, Raffi had known no children’s songs in English. But helped by his wife-to-be, kindergarten teacher Debi Pike, and armed with Baa Baa Black Sheep and some tips on working with children, he made his debut in a North York nursery school run by his future mother-in-law, Daphne Pike. I had to take my cues from how the teachers acted with the children to figure out how I should act with them, Raffi confesses. He talked with Debi for hours about how he should invite the children’s participation while maintaining an orderly group. Buoyed by his work at MITS, his mother-in-law’s enthusiasm and the children’s response, Raffi came to a decision: He would make a record for young children. Keeps ickiness down. Records for children then consisted mainly of Sesame Street or poor-quality Wait Disney records selling at $2.98 or $3.98. There was no record like the one that Raffi wanted to make—a high-quality record of songs the children themselves would want to sing. With Debi and friends Bonnie and Bert Simpson, he wrote and selected songs, borrowed $4000 from the bank, and made Singable Songs for the Very Young on his own label, Troubadour Records. In October 1976 Hy Sarick, owner of the Children’s Book Store in Toronto, agreed to take the album and in two weeks sold 200 records; by Christmas, with rave reviews in three Toronto newspapers, Singable Songs had sold 4000. Suddenly deluged with requests, Raffi began to crisscross Canada giving concerts, meeting his fans and selling records wherever he sang. Good recorded music for children was an idea whose time had come. With MITS colleague Bram Morrison, a baritone balladeer who had been teaching music in North York schools for seven years, Sharon and Lois pooled three repertoires and many years of experience to make a record for children that conveyed their special point of view. Forming their own recording company, Elephant Records, they gathered $20,000 from friends and relatives, and cut their first album, One Elephant, Deux Elephants. Released in September 1978, it had sold 27,000 copies by Christmas. They, too, went on tour, taking their records along. Today Raffi is a Companion of the Order of Canada, Singable Songs is a double platinum record, and he has released five other albums which have sold a total of 900,000. Sharon, Lois and Bram have sold 500,000 copies of their five records, won two Juno Awards, made a film and are currently embarking on a television series. Dramatic pains. Raffi’s music is gentle and low-key, helping children to relax and to contain their excitement. His songs celebrate life and positive human values like sharing, though he strives to keep the ickiness’ factor down. Baby Beluga, his fourth album, introduced children to songs about the environment (Baby beluga in the deep blue sea/ Swims so wild and swims so free) and the human condition (All I really need is a song in my heart/ Food in my belly/ And love in my family)—a far cry from the first song he wrote, A peanut butter sandwich made with jam. Sharon, Lois and Bram don’t look for messages—they choose songs because they love them. For us the music is the message, says Sharon. Listen, sing, get involved, feel it. Their selections are as eclectic as possible, from a Bach gavotte, to rock ’n’ roll, to traditional folk songs; to pop, jazz and reggae. They surround their treasures with fresh, exciting, often unexpected arrangements, running the gamut from big brass band or classical string trio to handsaw or garbage can. A particular favorite is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who went to bed with their britches on, a silly story set to high-blown baroque music arranged by Milton Barnes. Take the words away, says Bram, and the music is gorgeous. Take the music away and the words are a good joke. Put them together and the contrast is good fun. With every song, they move. If no one knows any actions, they invent some. And children follow right along, having dramatic pains in their bellies (Ooh, aah, I’ve got a pain in my belly) and sentimentally fluttering their hands over their hearts to the I love you in Skinnamarinky Dinky Dink. To parents, teachers and children alike, they stress that making music is above all a participatory experience. Concerts are therefore doubly important—they help children realize that even the music that comes from the box’s screen or the shiny black disk is made by real people. Says Carole Legget, who organized a trip to a Sharon-Lois-and-Bram concert at the Toronto Children’s Festival for her Parkdale School kindergarten, It came alive for them, seeing the actions to the songs, seeing the banjo and the fiddle. It makes listening to the records so much more meaningful. With financial, academic and critical success to bolster them, Raffi, and Sharon, Lois and Bram are starting to make inroads in the United States. American children are like Sleeping Beauty, says Lois, waiting to be awakened. In the meantime, other Canadians are following in their footsteps here. Singing in schools, church basements and concert halls, selling and autographing records often produced by small, independent companies, Fred Penner, Bob Schneider, Jim and Rosalie, Jerry Brodey, Chris and Ken Whiteley, Eric Nagler, Sandra Beech and others have also built solid reputations. Canadian children—and their parents—are the beneficiaries of this boom. Our modern age has separated families. There are places for little kids, places for teenagers, places for adults, says Louise Cullen, a music consultant with the North York Board of Education. Through concerts and records, we’re rediscovering how to play together. Says Sharon, Families really share something at our shows. I always feel very touched when I see parents and children leaving together holding hands or singing a song. I know they really have been connected with each other and that the music has helped.
Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.