Mongabay Features

Honoring children and protecting the planet: An interview with musician Raffi

If you were born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s in the United States or Canada, there’s a good chance you are familiar with the song “Baby Beluga.” The song, which is about a young whale swimming in the ocean with its mother, was written by Raffi Cavoukian, a Canadian singer-lyricist who was once called “the most popular children’s singer in the English-speaking world.” Raffi’s hits include “Down by the Bay,” “Thanks A Lot,” “Must Be Santa,” and “The More We Get Together.”

Baby Beluga” was inspired by a captive beluga whale named Kavna at the Vancouver Aquarium. But the song itself  which has been covered by groups ranging from the rock band Pearl Jam to country singer Billy Gilman  has gone on to inspire many children to take an interest in nature and wildlife.

“Baby Beluga’s ability to move people who hear it still amazes me,” Raffi told Mongabay in a November 2020 interview. “Not only is it still a kids’ favorite, adults who’ve grown up with it — beluga grads — now number in the tens of millions in Canada and the U.S.”

“Baby Beluga” was a big hit, but Raffi turned down lucrative opportunities to commercialize the song and turn it into a franchise, including declining a film offer because its marketing would have involved direct advertising to children. Decisions like that reflect Raffi’s deeper concern about the well-being of children, which extends to the environment upon which they depend.

In the 40 years since “Baby Beluga” was released, Raffi has developed a comprehensive philosophy on how to create a “humane and sustainable world by addressing the universal needs of children.” This philosophy is at the heart of the Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring, a nonprofit charitable organization that runs several educational initiatives, including courses and a set of “principles for healthy living.”

Four of the nine principles touch on nature and ecological sustainability: “Diversity,” which includes appreciating biodiversity and cultural diversity; “Safe Environments,” which includes consideration of toxic chemicals, among other issues; “Sustainability,” which includes conservation, renewable energy, and anti-pollution measures; and “Ethical Commerce,” which includes “triple bottom line” business, full-cost accounting, tax and subsidy shifts, and encouraging political and economic cycles that reward long-term thinking to create a restorative economy. Raffi’s own company, Troubadour Music Inc., is a triple-bottom-line company.

Temperate rainforest in Washington State's Olympic National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

“Child Honouring’s holistic ‘Respecting Earth and Child’ vision, compels us to take a big picture look at the environments in the ecology of the child,” Raffi said. “That includes what we call the economy and how people and nations bring goods to market, farmers and the quality of soil and produce, the quality and safety of what we offer our young.“

Most of Raffi’s focus these days are efforts to further the concept of “Child Honouring” and everything that goes along with it. He continues to use music as an instrument to inspire, including releasing songs on environmental advocacy. For example, “Cool It” (2017) called attention to climate change, while “Young People Marching” (2019) served as a tribute to young climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“Music like this can provide teachable moments for teachers and students, parents and kids,” Raffi told Mongabay. “Such songs can inspire and support not only climate strikers but all of us who want the best for our children — a desire in which families are united. The climate threat affects the whole world and all peoples.”

Raffi discussed these issues and more during an interview with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.