INTERVIEW: PBS Kids' 'It's Alma's Way' soundtrack creative team talks Puerto Rican music, dancing, and new episodes

'It's Alma's Way' Soundtrack Art. Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions
'It's Alma's Way' Soundtrack Art. Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions /

Looking for some new music to jam to with your kids? You might find some joy by listening to the PBS KIDS’ series Alma’s Way’s debut soundtrack, 'It’s Alma’s Way!' which is available to listen to now! The soundtrack features songs such as ‘Alma's Way! (Theme Song)’, ‘The Bronx Is Where It’s At ’, ‘The Bronx Squirrel Stomp’, and ‘The Subway Is Movin' . The theme song was written and produced by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bill Sherman (Hamilton, Sesame Street). In addition to the 'It’s Alma’s Way!' soundtrack, new episodes of Alma’s Way season 2 are premiering on PBS KIDS on March 4. We sat down with Alma’s Way Supervising Producer Mia Olufemi, composer Asher Lenz, and composer and musician Fabiola Mendez to discuss the newly released soundtrack, each of their favorite song on the album, and the b-girl and b-boy influences that shaped one of the upcoming episodes.

Alma’s Way was created by Sonia Manzano and is produced by Fred Rogers Productions.  If you want to know more about the new soundtrack and the next batch of episodes to be released, read on below!

The Parent Watch: Please introduce yourselves!

Fabiola Mendez: Hello. I am Fabiola Mendez. I am a Puerto Rican musician, composer, and educator. I am so honored to be part of the Alma’s Way team not only as a composer, but also as a consultant, and occasionally as an advisor, especially when we are doing episodes that are focused on Puerto Rican culture, slang, traditions, and more. 

Asher Lenz:  I know you have done a lot of advising on the series. Fabi was instrumental for the special at the end of season one, where Alma and her family are all in Puerto Rico -  which is really cool.

FM: We got to really show what Puerto Rico looks like in animation. The production team really took a huge responsibility [by] wanting to show accuracy and celebrating the different things that we have in Puerto Rico. So that's a little bit of what I do.

AL: My name is Asher, and I'm one of the other members of the Alma's Way composing team -  the trifecta. It’s been a real pleasure in so many ways to get to work on this show. The studio that does the animation is close to where I live in Toronto, Canada, and so I've worked with them on some other projects. This project was a totally unexpected opportunity to have really so many amazing experiences and collaborate with such an amazing cast and crew, including Mia and the team at Fred Rogers Productions - which was a first for myself and Steve [Skratt] and Fabi. Just learning about Puerto Rican music and having Fabiola help Stephen and I made the score more authentic. Fabi is also an expert in a specific instrument called the cuatro, which is featured heavily on the show. I remember when we were trying to find a collaborator on the musical team and Sonia Manzano heard Fabiola playing the cuatro. Sonia said, “That just takes me straight to Puerto Rico.”

Fabi was just an obvious choice. Then it was just up to whether or not Fabi had the time to work with us on the show. She, very fortunately for all of us, said yes. So that's a bit of backstory on the music team and, yeah, just thrilled to get to talk about this album again.  Mia is  a very musically-oriented producer, which has been awesome for the show. She has been instrumental in helping get this album made. For example, how do we take some of these songs that were built for episodic use and flesh them out into something bigger, something with a lot more content?  In some cases, we had to add whole new sections to the songs and write new lyrics, which was a fun challenge. 

MO: I’m Olubunmi Mia Olufemi. I'm the supervising producer of Alma's Way, and as Asher and Fabiola said, I work across all parts of the show - overseeing the production process, weighing in on scripting, production, animation, and everything that happens with the show from post to launch. I also produce the new live action shorts, which is another thing that we're doing. We’re doing two series, one called My Way and one called Sonia’s Way. I’m really excited to talk to you about working with these talented folks, including Stephen Skratt, who's not here [in the interview] with us today. 

TPW: Asher, I know you composed for other shows and movies, what was it like coming onto this team at Alma's Way and what did you learn from working on this soundtrack?

AL: One of the coolest aspects of our job of writing music for television and film is that you get to immerse yourself in different genres of music. You end up having to be able to compose and produce music at a professional level, oftentimes album-quality level, music that you didn't learn about in school or you haven't really had much exposure to. For Alma's Way, we had really strong direction right out of the gate from Sonia, from Mia, and from Ellen [Doherty] at Fred Rogers Productions. We wanted this series to really feel like a New York show.

AL (CONT’D): The Puerto Rican factor is hugely important and our desire was to make the music authentic, sothe very large New York Puerto Rican community could watch this and recognize the music. We also wanted to be multifaceted and to have Broadway [music] and to have Hip-Hop - and to have everything. We were just working on an episode recently where we were specifically listening to the Dominican Bachata. Fabi had to help out our co-writer, who was asking, “How do we nail that sound?” We wanted it to feel like you're in a Dominican-run barbershop.

So there's all these sorts of inherent challenges and opportunities to learn, and Fabi’s been very gracious with that. I think I could safely say that all three of us have had a lot of fun and enjoyed getting to know each other and working with each other. I would definitely say  that the Puerto Rican music side was a big learning curve for me. It's not easy, by any stretch, to learn. It's complicated. It's very complex and has a lot of nuance. That part has been really cool.

AWAY_207B_Justice Sonia and Umpire Alma_Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions_09 (REV)
Alma's Way. Justice Sonia and Umpire Alma. Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions /

MO: As Asher said, Sonia is really into music. She grew up in a time when salsa became prevalent. Her cousin, Eddie “Guagua” Rivera, was a salsa bassist. She has a story where Willie Colón played a concert in her living room. She had an idea of what the soundscape of the show would be. Yes, Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop, so whoever we were going to work with was going to have to do some sort of rap. Summer [Rose Castillo], our actress who plays Alma, is just a natural rapper. We did three rounds of casting and found Summer in the very last round. One of the things she submitted [in the audition] was a rap that she wrote with her dad about her school. She had so much swag that we were just like, “Wow, this girl can rap.” So we said, “Let's write a rap!”. The way that the show developed was - I want to borrow Asher's word - reciprocal.

MO (CONT’D): We had so much talent on the team, from the actors to the writers to the composers to the animators, that we often found ourselves inspired by someone's personal experiences or stories. We thought, this person is really good at this. Why don't we write that in? We had a young actor, Niason [DaCosta], who played our first Andre. Niason could beatbox, and he came in and just knew how to do all this amazing stuff. So it's been really fun to learn those things about the actors and then just to see how it enriches the world. It's made some really great stories and soundscapes for the show.

TPW: This show is so great for the whole family because you can learn, and more importantly, with the 'It’s Alma’s Way!' soundtrack, now you can engage with Puerto Rican culture. Fabiola, I'm sure infusing your roots with your musical talents must have been so fulfilling and fun and probably didn't even feel like a job. What made you want to start performing and composing as well? Was there ever a time, as you were constructing the soundtrack where you're [thinking], “Oh, this is why I do this?”

FM: Yes, absolutely. My dad used to play cuatro, and my family very much has a folk music culture celebrating our roots. So I grew up around a lot of this traditional music, but it wasn't common for a child to play this type of instrument. You can imagine the stereotype with folk instruments in general, and I feel like this is shared throughout many places in the world. People feel like folk music is for a specific geographic region or for a specific generation, or it's not accessible to everyone. And the fact that I was a child playing this folk instrument, it was weird. I would get other kids that would be like, why are you playing the lame instrument? That's for old people. So from a young age, I developed this sense of how I can change that narrative a little bit, and how I can get others to appreciate and celebrate our music and our culture, and how that translates in many different places. Now that I'm in the U.S., and people listen to what I do, while they're not necessarily connected to it in the same way that I am, they get to think about how they connect with their own roots, with their own stories.

Having that mission from a young age, and then going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and deepening my music theory and skills, and then finding Alma’s Way and getting to know this team, it feels like it's all so connected to my artistic mission. “How can we celebrate culture? How can we celebrate roots and stories with one another through music?” That's definitely a big thing for me. Getting to hear the cuatro on screen, it's making history already, because it's not something that has been done before. I'm  helping a younger generation experience these types of instruments and music. I'm so honored.

TPW: I'm truly inspired, especially from listening to the soundtrack myself. My favorite song is ‘The Bronx Squirrel Stomp’. I love that song so much. It’s just so cool to hear your roots and how you were able to bring that into your work. Mia, you have the inside scoop on these upcoming new episodes. I know there's a breakdance themed episode with Ana ‘Rokafella’ Garcia. I wanted to get more insight into that.

MO: ‘The Bronx Squirrel Stomp’, that was courtesy of Stephen. He is an expert percussionist and can play so many different percussion instruments. So, yeah, that was his thing, including a blender. Fun fact: There's a blender in there! The new episodes of Alma's Way will be airing from March 4 through March 7. The very first one is called Alma the B-Girl. As you know, we have this character named Frankie Four Feet, who's an old b-boy, but he can still get down. In that episode, Alma finds out that dancing in this style comes very easy to her but, Junior [Alma’s younger brother] has a little bit of trouble with it.  She has to understand that people learn at different levels or stages, and she has to respect his space and give him time to catch up. What is really cool about that episode, is that there's a lot of dancing in it. Animating dancing is really hard so we had to make sure that we were getting the dance moves right.

MO (CONT’D): I started looking at b-girls and b-boys from the Bronx, and I came across Ana ‘Rokafella’ Garcia, who was one of the premiere b-girls in the game. She is also an amazing educator and is still teaching kids and adults about the history of breakdance. She's still dancing herself. I reached out to Ana, and she was more than happy to talk with us. She's also Puerto Rican so there was a nice connection to this project. Ana was really great in helping us solve a couple of challenges with the dancing. There were only certain movements we could do with our rigs. You can't show the top of a character's head, and in break dancing, you're flipping, you're turning around, you're doing all these things. We had to find dances that would move for the animation, and also be easy enough for a kid to do because Alma and Junior are six and five. Ana  was able to help us figure out some moves!

MO: We decided we're going to do the salsa step. That's the move that Junior is trying to learn. Ana picked a 'poppin' dance style for characters Rafia and Lucas to practice. We also had her review the scripts. She was able to give us some alternative wordings to more accurately describe the style of dance. In addition, we showed her all of the animation, so Ana was really instrumental. Ana hasn’t seen the final version yet so I’m excited for her to see it! 

We're also going to be doing this live action series of two- to three-minute shorts focusing on kids called My Way. This is giving us an opportunity to show the real life inspiration behind Alma's Way. Like you see with Fabi and Asher, we are all real people who make this show, and all of our experiences are brought into the show in some way, shape or form. Viewers see Alma and Junior learning the salsa step, and they can also see what that really looks like in real life. And so in that segment, we're going to the studio of Victor “Kid Glyde” Alicea and his Kids Breaking League. Kid Glyde is actually one of the coaches in the Olympics for breakdancing this year, and he has taught an amazing group of kids. These kids are spinning on their heads and doing all sorts of stuff. It is incredible. We meet a Chinese American girl named Jordan, who talks about breakdancing and what it means to her. She shows us some of the moves and just talks about how great this culture of dance and music is. It's a beautiful celebration of the culture, and it's really unique to the Bronx. As always on Alma’s Way, we want to set ourselves apart by focusing on what makes our character special, and what is the real “stuff” behind the locations. And Bronx being the birthplace of hip hop, this was a perfect story for the series. 

MO (CONT’D): There's an episode that features a character named Yolette, who I love because she's named after my mom. She's also a Haitian American girl. That is a culture we don't see represented positively in the media so it's really exciting to have a Haitian American child introduced to the cast. She's hilarious. The episode gives a little bit of a civics lesson in that the characters learn you shouldn't pressure your friends to vote your way. Let them make up their own minds. We've got another [episode] called ‘Howard Brings the Beat’. That one's really exciting because we worked with a choreographer named Khalid Freeman, who has a dance school called Molodi, and he specializes in body percussion. He performed on STOMP and actually choreographed a dance for that, which is really cool. It’s fun! There's like, little armpit farts and playing [music] on your face. Howard learns that you can make music with anything. And there's a fun episode called ‘A Tale of Two Almas’. That was actually the first episode we started. It was written by Dana Chan, our story editor. You see Alma and Emmy rapping in that one. There is lots of music in this batch [of episodes] coming out in March!

TPW: I love hearing about all of the new episodes and also that there's a live-action element. Lastly, I wanted to ask you guys, rapid fire, what is your favorite song on the soundtrack. 

AL: Not to self-promote here but it is one that I worked on and it is near and dear to my heart. Mami (who is played by Annie Henk) is singing at an open mic night, and I got assigned to write a song for her about a train going uptown.Annie got [into the studio] and just sang this snippet of a song so soulfully. Mia connected with that song and with Annie’s performance of it as well, even though it was just such a short little snippet. She said, “I think I hear in my head that we could use that song and segue into the train song, called ‘The Subway is Movin’.

So ‘Uptown Train’ goes into the rap section of ‘The Subway is Movin.’’ I remember I sent a little quick draft to Mia, who felt it was so fantastic. This one little unexpected mashup of these two songs comes together with both having the commonality of the subway and the mom and the daughter. That one stands out to me. I just connect with it.

FM: I would say mine is ‘Mi Tocaya Alma’ because it has a blend of rap with some bomba and with some jibaro music.

AL: I love what Fabi plays on that song.

FM: It’s such a traditional tune that I feel like any Puerto Rican is going to hear that and be like, “Wow, that's a Christmas song”. People relate a lot to folk music. They relate it to Christmas. I really like that one so I would say, yes, ‘Mi Tocaya Alma’  is my favorite. We worked to get that song to make sense because we wanted to have the rap, but they were in Puerto Rico in that episode, so Alma had the bomberos play with her. But Mami is also learning this song for the great grandmother, for [her] bisabuela. The way that it all came together as part of the story and then ending with the song, which we were able to include in the album, it's just like, yes. So that's my favorite.

AL: That's a great choice. It's got swag, too, for sure.

MO: I love all of those. It's really hard to pick. The theme song is wonderful. I also really like the ‘New Playground, New Dog Park!’ song because I'm one of those people who makes up songs wherever I go. And I think that parents do that a lot, right? It's [singing], “Let's go get you a banana,” or “Let's go give you a bath. Bath, bath, bath.” I do that when I'm babysitting or when I'm with kids.

MO (CONT’D): I think that one is really fun because it speaks to bringing music into your everyday life as a parent raising your kids. You can celebrate everything musically. In this song, we've got Mami making up a song with Alma and Junior while they're in the back of the car. She’s silly and fun and free and awesome. I feel like a lot of our music is that way. It's so joyful. The script writers do such a beautiful job of writing these lyrics. Asher, Stephen and Fabiola blow us away; Then bringing the instrumentation in behind [the lyrics], we're always so shocked and happy when we get a song in pre-mix. The team did a really funky theme for a character we have called Spotty the Spotted Seal. I did not expect to hear a funk tune in a PBS KIDS show so I love that. That’s why I love that one.

The 'It’s Alma’s Way!' soundtrack is available to buy and stream now! You can watch new episodes of Alma’s Way when the second half of S2 premieres on March 4 on PBS KIDS! Keep up with The Parent Watch for more family-friendly news, coverage, opinions, and more.