If you've spent any part of the past 20 years raising small children, there's a good chance your little ones' lives have been touched by the work of local composer Fernando Rivas.
Unbeknownst to many, Rivas is in fact one of America's leading composers for children's television. The latest evidence is the recent nomination of Handy Manny, the Disney Channel show he sets to music, for an Emmy Award this year (Outstanding Special Class Animated Program). The show didn't win, but if it had, it would've been the third time Rivas has been part of an Emmy-winning effort. And that's on top of his Grammy award, plus other assorted prizes and grants that would put you to sleep for sure if we listed them all here.
Rivas' story is a classic tale of one man's assimilation into America's vast, multi-cultural, musical melting-pot. At the age of eight, he and his mother fled Cuba and settled in Miami, where his ever-fresh passions for music, literature, and film were ignited during his high school years. After moving to New York, his musical pedigree steadily grew as he transferred from the Manhattan School to the prestigious Juilliard School on a full scholarship. His distinguished mentors include standout American composers Benjamin Lees, Vincent Persichetti, and, especially, David Diamond.
After graduating, Rivas says he spent his time knocking about New York and New Jersey, playing and writing music anywhere he could get a job — from bars to churches, schools, and community theaters, from basement bands to wedding bands and working bands.
"I wanted to know music not as it existed in school, safe behind the fortress walls of academia, but as it lived and breathed in the real world," Rivas says.
From there, he labored in the trenches, working his way up — as a composer, arranger, and keyboardist for radio stations (the man plays a mean piano), theater groups (including those on Broadway), and respected filmmakers. His work took him up and down the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. He's written or co-written 14 musicals, including Selena: A Musical Celebration of Life and the award-winning Barrio Babies. Best-known among the six full-length films he has scored is Ranger; the short feature Carmelita Tropicana was shown at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. He also worked regularly with top Latino artists like Tito Puente and Paquito D'Rivera, among others.
He first broke into TV in 1990, when a colleague dropped his name to the producers of the Children's Television Workshop, better known as Sesame Street. Between his catchy ditties and the famous singers who delivered them (like Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, and Cindy Lauper), Fernando shared Emmy wins with his production team colleagues in 1995 and 1996. In 1998, his song "Mambo I, I, I" was featured on the Grammy-winning children's album, Elmopalooza!. Then, in 2006, another fortuitous name-drop led to Fernando's engagement to underscore the Disney Channel's new show, Handy Manny. He'd been a Lowcountry resident for some time by then.
Check out the show sometime — especially if you're concerned about what your kids get exposed to on the boob tube these days. You can catch it several times a day. There are some choice video excerpts to be found on Fernando's website, rivasmusic.com.
The appeal of Handy Manny is evident right away. It's all about Manny, a friendly Latino handyman who bounces back and forth betwixt English and Spanish. His co-stars are his faithful, but mischievous, companions: his tools, which, of course, can talk and sing. Together, they undertake various repair projects and adventures that not only entertain, but teach children about friendship, loyalty, compassion, and constructive teamwork.
Rivas' mostly synthesizer-generated music fits the show like a glove, but it's far more than mere musical backdrop. On top of its buoyant Latino flavors, it's all fairly sophisticated material that's designed to appeal to kids while never playing down to them. In a recent telephone interview, Rivas cited some recent "chase scene" material from the show that's loosely based on the complex music of Hungarian genius Bela Bartok. Other passages reflect the contrapuntal influence of his main Juilliard teacher David Diamond. So our kids are getting more than just simplistic cartoon muzak.
Fernando is excited about his current project: furnishing background music for a series of four animated profiles of famous Hispanic people in support of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15). The spots are slated to be run in October on Nick Jr., a subsidiary of the children's channel, Nickelodeon. Honorees include Latin jazz legend Tito Puente, Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, astronaut Ellen Ochoa, and Narcis Monturiol, the inventor of the submarine.
"Naturally, I'm pleased with the way my career has developed, and I'm proud of my successes," he says. "I didn't plan on things working out this way, but not everybody gets to make a name for themselves and a good living doing what he loves."
Still, he's not entirely content to be pigeonholed as a kiddie composer, or as a Latino specialist. "I'd like to bridge the 'Latino gap,' and become better known for my more serious efforts," he says.
In recent years, several of his more formal chamber music compositions have been performed at local concerts. Besides those, he's written a piano concerto and various orchestral works — not to mention some cool Latin jazz numbers.
He'd like to be better known as a writer, too. He has crafted expert essays and reviews for the City Paper and has penned song lyrics, librettos for musicals, short stories, a novella, and quite a bit of poetry.
That said, his fondest hopes for the future remain in the musical realm. He says, "I'm especially keen on breaking into the ranks of major film composers."