VANCOUVER, B.C. -- He is carrying a lot of pain, this Raffi. "I clearly have heard the urgency of the Earth's cry in the last few years," he says. "I really heard it to every cell of my body."

He feels all of the Earth's horrifying wounds. Punctures in the ozone. Toxic scabs on the landscape. Cauterized rain forests. Nuclear dandruff. Such a depressing and huge burden for one man to bear -- especially a man whose job used to be making little boys and girls happy, who is still without question the most popular children's singer in the English-speaking world.

Once he was an entertainer whose songs rarely went deeper than "Gotta shake, shake, shake my sillies out, and wiggle my waggles away."

Now Raffi asks: "What has happened to our appropriate righteous indignation when our family's health is being threatened by people who perpetuate deceit? Where is our appropriate anger, where is our appropriate sadness for the state of this beautiful planet?"

Sitting businesslike behind a desk in his record company office here, he talks in that comforting, patient, uniquely Canadian tone -- as well modulated as Mister Rogers's, with a voice just as recognizable to kids. But he isn't that old Raffi, the full-bearded, moon-faced minstrel to generations of toddlers, he of "Baby Beluga" and "The Bowling Song" and "Six Little Ducks." The old Raffi still exists, yes, preserved like a specimen in the grooves of the nine platinum and gold discs that hang on the walls at Troubadour Records: 7 million copies sold, and still selling briskly.

But the man so beloved by children will no longer play for children. He will not write songs for them. The new Raffi writes angry music now, for adults. He talks of the "diminished inheritance" that has resulted from overpopulation and pollution. And he declares: "I will not bring children into the world, I know that. I know that's a decision for my life."

Raffi, the children's friend, childless. It's not as terrible a letdown as Pee-wee Herman in the porn theater, but it still seems ... sad. And harsh. Sure, the world's got problems -- it always has -- but to deny oneself the love of children?

"I don't think it's harsh at all," Raffi says, his voice and face placid. "It's a tough decision but I think it's a very loving one."

This Raffi is saying things now that he's never been able to say before. Things that may bother all those parents who love him for what he used to be.

Nobody is ever fully what we think they are. We like to think that children's entertainers would make great parents. We like to think of them as children themselves, in a way.

Raffi Cavoukian is nearly 44, going gray in the beard and around the temples. His long marriage, to a kindergarten teacher who helped launch his career, is over. She filed for divorce last month. He has been in therapy to deal with his "inner wounds." You sense that his own childhood was not particularly happy.

True, it was not idyllic, he admits, and some of the pain persists. But he says this has nothing to do with who Raffi is today, does not explain his recent transformation. And on the subject of his childhood, Raffi will tolerate no further inquiries.

The 'Transition' People who know the old Raffi -- the millions of parents who learned his songs by heart, by dint of endless repetition ("Wanna hear Raafffiii, Mommmmy"), and learned to sing lovingly and unashamedly along, even if they sounded idiotic -- those people are a bit confused by the new Raffi.

Some parents who bought his latest album, "Evergreen Everblue," thinking it was another patented upbeat Raffi product -- it was mistakenly placed in the children's music racks -- were upset to find lyrics that take enviro-guilt to a new level: In the reggae-rap number "What's the Matter With Us," Raffi demands, "Why are we polluting our children? There's no future in that."

They found childish harmonies applied to acrid lyrics like "Shut down the spread of atomic waste." They found a few of the old singable songs, recycled from previous albums, and new tunes thickly coated with Hallmark-style profundities. (From "Alive and Dreaming": "I am free and I am singing/ I am warm and I am breathing/ I'm alive and I am dreaming.")

But no matter what he sings, Raffi says, he still loves children: "It's a mistake to suggest that I am turning my back on them." He does concerts now for an older crowd -- teenagers, parents, teachers -- hoping to convert them to his cause for the sake of "future generations." He had considered making an environmental children's album, but decided that "it's not the job of a 3-year-old to heal the Earth. It's not fair."

But it is Raffi's job. The singer who became famous and wealthy thanks to the consumption-crazed baby boom generation now preaches against acquisition. He gives large sums to environmental groups, crusades to save indigenous people in Malaysian rain forests, attends organic farming conclaves, will attend the Earth Summit in Rio this week.

He gave up his affluent lifestyle in Toronto to live in a barely furnished apartment here in British Columbia, the Pacific Coast province that's called "the California of Canada." Vancouver is a mecca for counterculturalists and activists -- Greenpeace was founded here 21 years ago, and the city is now enacting the toughest auto pollution standards in North America. Raffi drives a Honda Civic and says he sometimes takes the bus.

He took a sabbatical from doing children's concerts in September 1988 and never went back on tour. He and his wife, Deborah Pike, who had been together since 1973, separated. He turned 40. He contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, the mysterious "yuppie flu."

It has all the markings of a midlife crisis. Raffi refers to all this as "my transition."

There are other abrupt and profound transitions in music: Dylan's conversion to Christianity. Lennon's detour into Yoko's avant-garde caterwauling. Cat Stevens's transformation into Yusef Islam. And now, Raffi Cavoukian from strummer of rug rat ballads to klaxon of environmental ruin.

In Raffi's case, "it was a mind-blowing transition to attempt," says one associate. "He owned the children's market. It would be like Elvis, the king of rock-and-roll, wanting to become an opera singer."

Raffi's album "Evergreen Everblue," released two years ago, died in the adult pop market.

Granted, Raffi is breaking new ground here. The last overtly pro-Earth hit song was Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" in 1971. Some rap and rock groups are exploring ecological themes, but even Raffi's distributor, MCA, admits that his new style presents "a marketing challenge."

Raffi, usually a gentle soul, grows prickly and defensive about any criticism of his work. He yearns for acceptance by the pop establishment, Top 40 airplay, a video in MTV rotation.

"Consider the irony of 12- to 15-year-olds watching MTV, who have grown up with Raffi's music, and Raffi puts out an MTV video, and MTV won't play it," he says, his indignation rising for the first time in several hours of conversation. "It's ludicrous. Absolutely ludicrous!"

He says reviewers didn't understand "the fundamental uniqueness" of his "Evergreen Everblue" album, that it established a wholly new genre. He defends its title track -- a single that got no U.S. airplay -- as "a tremendous song." The tune is anthemic and catchy enough, but the lyrics bludgeon. ("Amazon is calling/ 'Help this planet Earth'/ With voices from the jungle/ 'Help this planet Earth' " etc.).

"It's as good as anything the Beatles wrote," Raffi says.

Dealing with 'Denial' Yes, like any star, Raffi has an ego. And his ego fails to entertain two possibilities: (1) People don't want to hear his message, and (2) he's trying to do something he's not very good at.

A brilliant writer of children's songs doesn't necessarily make a brilliant writer of adult lyrics. Consider that a great many authors -- Kipling, Twain, Eliot, Dickens -- produced classic work enjoyed by generations of children. But how many children's writers have gone on to adult popularity and acclaim?

The main thing is, Raffi wants to be taken seriously, no easy feat for an artist whose choruses went "Quack, quack, quack."

Now he wants to become something of an environmental spokesman, a unifier of many causes. Raffi was the first major musician to refuse to release his CDs with wasteful long-box packaging, and his marketing people see him as uniquely positioned to capitalize on two great '90s themes: the family and environmentalism. You may be seeing him more on television and in the movies (he sought a voice role in the animated feature "Ferngully ... the Last Rainforest" but ended up just contributing a song to the soundtrack). The guy who wore funny hats and loud Hawaiian shirts is now understatedly internationalist chic in a cotton shirt, with black jeans and black Reeboks and a shoulder bag woven in Guatemala and a rattan wristlet from the endangered Penan tribe. He believes his old audience's difficulty in letting go is "compounded by the fact that my new music is now speaking to areas of our consciousness where a certain denial has been in place for a long time. People don't want their old friend Raffi to necessarily come along and say, 'Oh by the way, it's time to wake up here.' "

Outside his office, gulls groan and cars bleat, nature and machine competing to coexist on the waterfront in one of Canada's most picturesque cities. And Raffi goes on about the Earth's crisis and how to reorient our thinking, his declarations arriving like planks in a platform. They sometimes seem like efforts to wall off the past.

He has already issued ground rules for this session. He wants his ex-wife and his old collaborators off-limits. They are not the story anymore. Here's a list of people to talk to: world-class environmentalists like David Suzuki of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Jeremy Rifkin of the "Beyond Beef" campaign. A few other associates, most of whom have known Raffi only since his transformation.

There are only the barest bones of biography: He and his family arrived in Canada from Cairo when he was 10. He spoke no English. His family is Armenian, part of the diaspora that began with the 1915 massacre of Christian Armenians by the Muslim Turks. His father was a renowned portrait photographer who used the professional name Cavouk.

Raffi will loosen up as the daylong session proceeds, as he eats macrobiotic food and sushi (fish is the only flesh he allows in his "modified vegetarian" diet), visits Vancouver's beach, its parks and forests. As he gets closer to the Earth, he seems to get closer to himself.

Something else will happen, something fascinating. He will move seamlessly from the subject of the planet's ills into the jargon of the psychologically abused -- comparing our "dysfunctional civilization" to a "dysfunctional family." Like victims of loveless upbringings, he says, humanity is "in denial" about the extent of the damage that has been wrought to the planet.

He will try to explain that dealing with his own problems -- a career transition and divorce -- helped him better understand the Earth's pain. He believes that feeling pain is an important part of self-discovery.

"I'm serving my life's purpose," he says, unsmilingly. "I've never been happier." The Causes Left Behind Raffi started his musical career hoping to change the world. After learning English, he picked up his first guitar at age 16, became a coffeehouse folkie, singing the '60s protest music of Pete Seeger and his own love songs. A friend from those days compares the early Raffi to John Denver -- a competent, earnest vocalist and guitarist without "life-shattering talent."

Raffi enrolled at the University of Toronto but dropped out in his sophomore year, to his parents' chagrin, to pursue music. But he drew no real crowds until he switched from folk to children's music, at the suggestion of his girlfriend's mother. Debi Pike, whom he later married, and her fellow teacher friends, Bert and Bonnie Simpson, would become collaborators on his first album, "Singable Songs for the Very Young," recorded in 1976 -- an album that still sells a thousand copies a week.

The album was cut on an eight-track recorder in the rec room of a suburban ranch home in Hamilton, Ontario. Dan Lanois and his brother Bob did the engineering. "I think Raffi recorded that album for $1,700," Dan recalls.

Dan Lanois' most recent production project was U2's comeback, "Achtung Baby." He is probably now the most highly regarded producer in rock music, having guided several smash U2 and Peter Gabriel albums. He laughs when reminded that he played mandolin on "Singable Songs."

"It happened at a naive time for everybody," he says from New Orleans, where he has a studio and is working on his own album. "The good records often happen under those circumstances; you get thrown together and it captures the mood at the time, the commitment of the people doing it."

Simpler times, and somewhat magical. The first album, self-marketed by Raffi from his car, took a while to catch on, but the musicianship and intelligence stood apart from anything else in the children's market. By 1978, Raffi quit playing adult music for good -- a decision that agonized him. He felt a calling in adult music, issues music -- "I had a lot emotionally invested in it," he says today.

But the crowds -- and the sales -- lay in kids' music. His records were garnering acclaim -- they were geared to grade-schoolers, and teachers admired their educational content and lack of patronizing and sexist stereotypes; parents liked their soothing effect on rowdy kids. Raffi albums, more than one critic observed, did not drive adults screaming from the room in the same manner as, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks. Album followed album, with increasingly sophisticated studio work, and more grown-up messages. Raffi parses his old albums today and finds the seeds of his current activism.

The song "Thanks a Lot" celebrates "our common bounty," he says. "All I Really Need" was "my first anti-consumerism song, a very powerful protest song -- except that rich people wouldn't think about it that way because it was so positive."

But if Raffi was planting subliminal socialist messages, he was also reaping the capitalist bounty of the Reagan '80s. The parents of his audiences were yuppies who could afford tapes and concerts. True, Raffi never hawked T-shirts on his tours or signed corporate endorsement deals -- he has spurned million-dollar offers to endorse toys, candy and cartoons, says his lawyer, Ron Finer -- but he never underestimated his art's value as a commodity. Raffi's lyrics have been published in a series of a dozen "Raffi Songs to Read" books; there's a deal in the works to create a Raffi-inspired environmental curriculum for schools.

As the '80s wore on, the concerts kept selling out, the fame growing -- Raffi was awarded the Order of Canada for work with children -- but something was happening he didn't like. His audience was getting too young. Raffi had originally aimed his songs at kindergarten and grade-school kids, who could at least understand them.

Now he'd peer out from the stage and see every other seat empty because toddlers and babies were perched on their parents' laps. "It got to the point that pregnant women were coming to the concerts; they knew he was someone special and it would be a good experience" for the fetus, says lawyer Finer.

"He had an autograph-signing at FAO Schwarz here in New York and they lined up at 4 in the morning," Finer recalls. "Raffi was asked to have words of wisdom for kids 6 months old, for children with disabilities -- it had a Lourdes quality to it. It was no longer a positive experience. ... Raffi could talk to first- or second-graders. He always felt he was a serious performer with a serious message."

So he took his sabbatical and decided he had to return, after 11 years, to the music that had moved him to pick up a guitar in the first place: protest music. In September 1989, Raffi staged his farewell concert with his Rise and Shine Band at Carnegie Hall. Scalpers got $300 a ticket. He had reached a point of closure. That year he got a Grammy nomination for his final children's album, a live album. The last track on it is "Everything Grows." The last words Raffi sings are: "Mamas do and papas too. Everything grows." Insights Raffi's growth has led him to various epiphanies. One involves the beluga whale, which he wrote about so whimsically years ago. He learned that the belugas in the St. Lawrence River are "swimming, living toxic waste sites." In his concerts now, he sings the old "Baby Beluga" song and lectures about how only 450 are left in the river, down from 5,000 -- poisoned by pollutants.

He devours books with the fervor of a grad student, and lives like one. "Voluntary simplicity" is how he describes his lifestyle.

His apartment has a great view of the Pacific but little else: a small sofa and recliner, a boombox, some CDs, an organ, three acoustic guitars, three accordions. Loosely drawn nudes, his own art, hang on the walls. He lives alone, "married to his work," but makes a point of flirting with a table of women at a sushi bar and notes that Vancouver has many beautiful women. He isn't usually recognized by adults, though. Unless they have toddlers in tow.

It is the old music, the nine-record catalogue, that affords him the luxury to pursue his causes.

"You know, I don't covet affluence," he says. "Lately I've fallen in love with accordions, and I have a number of them, but I think that I can be forgiven for my passion," he chuckles, "for this musical instrument that was part of my childhood. My father used to play."

He mentions that his father played "all over Cairo -- he was popular." And that's as much as he will divulge. He deflects questions about his adjustment to a radically different culture as a 10-year-old.

And there is nothing he remembers, he says, about the years in Cairo.

Raffi's brother, Onnig, who is three years older, fills in some details. How the family, as devout Christians, often felt isolated. How Arab zealots torched a shop near his father's photo studio. How their father, Artin, was horrified by the sight of Egyptian soldiers playing soccer with a British soldier's head.

And Onnig, speaking from Toronto in a Middle Eastern accent undetectable in his brother, recalls the uprooting of the family, its migration from Cairo to Montreal and finally Toronto. And how the Cavoukian brothers chafed under their father's "extremely authoritarian" manner, as Onnig tells it. And how they reveled in the freedom of the Canadian society -- girls were even allowed in the boys' classes! How the boys rejected the old culture and grew to "despise" everything Armenian, even the father's accordion music. How Artin Cavoukian grew rich photographing famous and powerful people, and wanted both boys to go into the family business, the Armenian way. Onnig agreed, at 18, but only because his father had suffered a heart attack and was not well enough to run the studio. But Raffi, when he grew older, resisted, wanted to follow his own path.

Says Onnig: "Raffi was an honors student when he dropped out of college two weeks before his second-year final exams to pursue music. To my parents this was a problem. You could say it was an embarrassment to my father. North American musicians were not looked upon well by their culture. ... There was anger and frustration between father and son... .

"Raffi got away from the family. He went away to England. He was the one who rebelled. He left any way of life my parents were accustomed to. He hitchhiked across the country." He defied his devout parents and found a non-Armenian girlfriend, and lived with her before marriage.

It wasn't until many years later when Raffi became a success, Onnig says, that his parents realized, "from seeing others take such joy in Raffi's music," that their son had succeeded.

As Onnig puts it, they realized "there was something to Raffi."

They are very proud of him now, Onnig says.

What's Left Unsaid

On a peninsula in English Bay is the heavily wooded Stanley Park, a refuge from the city. Raffi sometimes comes here for the quiet and to marvel at the giant old cedar trees. He often reaches out to caress the trees, and he snacks on wild plants, Euell Gibbons style. He calls out to the crows too.

He wants to show off "the Raffi Bench," which he donated to the park when he buried a time capsule, including some writings and his album, to be unsealed in 2001 to see if anything had changed in 10 years. He tries to weave his healing themes all together -- Al Gore's new environmental book, Gloria Steinem's book about self-esteem, Mahatma Gandhi, the Earth, himself -- as planes occasionally roar overhead, drowning out conversation in the cool afternoon stillness. Raffi is playing multilayered intellectual chess. His moves are always guarded.

"Gandhi said it in the quote 'We must become the change we seek in the world.' My own way of saying it is, 'You can't give what you don't have.' So in a way, if you want peace in the world, bring peace to your heart."

And what brought you peace?

"I've done my own inquiry into these matters over years of studying childhood development {and} my own sessions with therapy, to heal my own inner wounds. Every one of us has these wounds -- the extent of them varies. ... {Because} of child-rearing that is more for the convenience of the adults than it is for the actual needs of the child, the most well-meaning parent will still have children that need to work out 'their stuff.' Okay. So, I've made great efforts to work out my stuff."

Is this related to dysfunctional families?

"What I come to is, there's a yearning in our breast for some kind of harmony... . We are learning about dysfunction in ways that we have not known before. ...

"And we know that people who have been abused in childhood, whether it's sexual abuse or other trauma at the hands of alcoholic parents or whatever, we know that these people can heal. This is great news, it's really hopeful news."

Portrait of Raffi, Retouched Raffi has an old friend in Toronto named Mendelson Joe, a painter and musician who legally flopped his name because he felt like it. Joe says he thinks Raffi's message is great, but he wishes Raffi would go back to doing music for kids.

He says of the song "Evergreen, Everblue": "It sucks. It's something Andrew Lloyd Webber wished he had written. And Andrew Lloyd Webber makes me barf."

Joe records music too -- an album every year, paying for the release of a few thousand copies of his cassettes. He gets no airplay, but he stays with his vision. He also writes environmental songs, but with a much harder edge. Like "Man rapes mother. Man rapes his mother. And the Earth is mother. There is no other mother." Joe, large, bearded and bald, surrounded by art in his Toronto studio, finds a portrait that he painted last year of his friend Raffi, and describes it over the phone. "It is not a happy, smiling painting. I paint exactly what I see: He looks stern, maybe. Sad. Confused, maybe. I paint what he gives me. It looks more troubled than anything."

Why?

"I come from a screwed-up home and it shapes me, and it shaped him. He's gone through a whole pile of manure dealing with his upbringing and his father."

Raffi's father is 78 now, and very sick, with Parkinson's disease. But Raffi has agreed to let Joe paint another portrait. One that's happier. One that shows Raffi playing the accordion -- a red one, like the accordion his father used to play.