Jose Mari Chan, (Not) The Father of Philippine Christmas Carols
Jose Mari Chan’s name is practically synonymous with Christmas. After all, it’s impossible to go to the mall without hearing “Christmas in Our Hearts” or “A Perfect Christmas” as soon as the 'Ber months come around.
In fact, remember these memes from August? On top of that, Chan is starring in Uniqlo's Christmas ad for the second year in a row. But in spite of this, he insists that he isn’t the “Father of Philippine Christmas Carols.” For him that title belongs to Levi Celerio, the man who composed “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” and “Pasko na Naman.”
“Okay, if you want it, I consider myself the Little Drummer Boy that heralds the season. It’s a ‘Ber month! Ratatatatat, tatatatatat, tatatatatatat!” he jokes while air drumming. This self-deprecation is part of what makes Chan so charming.
Jose Mari Chan is exactly what we need this Christmas. He’s the kind of man we should all aspire to be: successful yet humble, well-dressed, kind, and throroughly good-natured. He evokes an era when being a gentleman was still valued. His wholesome, squeaky-clean image is both old-fashioned and refreshing.
Character aside, his mellow voice accompanied by soothing melodies is a palliative in and of itself. And this December, fans have a chance to take a break from the Christmas rush and listen to his hits as played by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. Chan will take the stage with his children and various guest artists at the Solaire Theater on December 16, with a matinee show at 3 p.m. and gala at 8 p.m. We caught up with Chan during the presscon for the concert to talk about Christmas, career choices, and strange encounters with fans.
Do you have any favorite Christmas albums, apart from your own?
I grew up in Iloilo City, and my lola collected a lot of records. Throughout the season she would play the Christmas album of The Four Aces. And also I loved the Nat King Cole Christmas album, the Johnny Mathis Christmas, the Frank Sinatra Christmas album. In fact, the song “Jingle Bells” on the Four Aces Christmas album inspired me to write “A Wish on Christmas Night” and on my new album Going Home to Christmas, "The Bells at Christmas." I guess I was inspired by the songs I grew up with.
Most adults tend to lose the magic of Christmas because they get so stressed out about all the preparations and shopping they have to do. How do you think they can get back into the Christmas spirit?
I have a song called “With the Eyes of the Child” and another song called “A Child Again at Christmas.” And you know we should never lose our sense of wonder and childlike qualities.
How did you start out as a songwriter?
In 1966 I was a host of a TV show on ABS-CBN called 9 Teeners—it was a teenage show from 6 to 7 p.m. I was in junior year at the Ateneo, and Pete Roa came to the house to ask my father’s permission if I could host that TV show. My father asked, “Is that once a week?” “No sir, it’s every day, Monday to Saturday.” My father said, “But he’s studying!” And so eventually my father said yes on one condition: that "you don’t pay him a salary.” And so I would drive from Ateneo everyday all the way to ABS-CBN on Roxas Boulevard. And this went on for a year or a year and a half, and that was when I introduced my original songs. And so an independent record producer came to me and asked if they could put “Afterglow” on record. So that was the first step towards my recording career.
Why didn’t your father want you to have a salary?
The wisdom of my father is this: he always trained me all my life to take over his business and until now, I’m still running the [sugar] business that I inherited from him. So he didn’t want to let me stray away from the path that he wanted me to follow. He saw that I enjoyed singing and composing so he felt that if I got paid doing something that I loved, I would no longer work with him.
So how did you convince him to let you pursue music?
I must have been 9 years old when I sang on radio in Iloilo. It was a Sunday show called Children’s Hour, where children of all ages recited poetry, played the piano, and sang. And so he saw that there was a glitter in my eye, that I was happy when I was singing. At that time I was too young, and my dad encouraged me. But when I was 14 or 15 years old and I started to compose he told me, “You won’t be able to support family with music. And especially because you are Chinese. So I would advise that you use that as a hobby and learn the business from me. Because eventually you will take over the business and I don’t want you to fail.”
So I started working for him 50 years ago in ’67 right after I graduated from college. And so that’s the business that I’ve inherited. He saw that I was fairly successful [in music]. He attended my concert at the Carnegie Hall in New York, he attended my concert in Japan, and he also watched my concerts here in Metro Manila and so I’m very happy that with my father’s advice, I was able to balance the music and the business.
How do you juggle your careers as a businessman and as an artist?
You just set your own priorities. My first priority is my family. Second is my business. And then the third is the music. So I would accept offers to do shows in London, Paris, in Oslo, in Geneva, and all over the United States, but I try to space them so that it won’t be too much of a conflict with my work. It’s really just managing your time and setting your priorities.
Did you raise your children to be musically inclined, or did it just happen naturally?
I find that music is in the blood, it’s in your genes. So they take to music naturally. Of course I encourage it but I always tell them that times have changed. There’s not much future in music nowadays because the technology has overtaken the industry, so they’re all working for me except Angelica, who is a marine scientist.
The music video for "Christmas in Our Hearts," which Chan recorded with his daughter Liza
How do you feel about them following in your footsteps?
Well, as a hobby I encourage it. So my sons Joe and Mike were part of a band called Generation. The other members were the son of Celeste Legaspi, and the son of Sampaguita. They did very well except that when it came to the CD, it wasn’t selling as many copies as they would have wanted.
So what advice would you give people whose parents want them to prioritize business over music?
You should continue to write and then just keep them in a book or something. And then the day will come when those songs will be recorded. But do not give up that gift of music that God has given you. Get a career, whether it’s business, or law, or medicine, get a solid career. Raise a family. But don’t throw away your gift of music.
What are some of your strangest encounters with fans?
Last year, about April or May, I was asked to perform in Lanao del Norte [which is] predominantly Muslim. They were able to fill the gym with maybe 5,000 people and I was doing my hits one after another. So after singing about 18 hits, they were asking for more! So I sang another one. “More, more!” So finally, I was running out of hits. I asked them, “What would you like me to sing?” You know that they requested? “Christmas in Our Hearts.”
That was a very strange request coming from a predominantly Muslim audience. So I said okay, we had a minus one, and I sang “Christmas in Our Hearts.” And you know what? When it came to the portion of my daughter’s part, the whole gym broke out singing, “This season may we never forget the love we have for Jesus.” That was a very wonderful feeling of fulfillment, that the song has transcended religion.
Have you ever been accosted by fans at the airport?
I never say no when people ask, “Can we have a picture? Can we have a selfie?” I always accommodate people because I feel if my songs are popular, it’s because of them. So I try to show my appreciation by giving in to the requests.
One time I had an intimate concert, and people were sending me notes. “Please sing ‘Stop and Talk Awhile,’” “Please sing this song,” and then I got a note that says “Can I have your baby?” You know what I said? I said, “Oh, my baby’s only two years old, si Angelica, no, I cannot give her away.” That’s what I said. So maybe in their mind, “Napakabobo naman nito. Hindi niya nakuha yung meaning?”
Another example is there was a young man—I forget whether he was eighteen or nineteen—his name was Paolo Gallarde. The couple of times that I met him in my concert, when I would go down to the audience to sing, he would stand up and offer to sing with me! He was mouthing the words! Then he became a friend. He would call me at work and in the house and we would talk.
And then one day I was going to have a concert at the pavilion at Roxas Boulevard and then he calls me and he says “Tito Joe, I know you’re going to have a concert tomorrow but I cannot watch because tomorrow morning I’m going to have surgery. I have encephalitis and so the doctor’s going to put a stent because my brain is bleeding so there’s fluid.” So I said “Oh, okay I’ll pray for your Paolo.”
The next morning, the day of my concert, I got a call from the mother. She was crying because during the operation, Paolo went into a coma. So I asked, “Where is he now?” “He’s here at Cardinal Santos.” I said “Okay I’ll go there, I’ll pray over him.” And I know that hearing is the last to go. So I went to his ear and I said “Paolo, this is Tito Jo Mari Chan, and I want to pray over you, and in fact maybe Paolo I’ll sing to you.” So I sang one of my songs.
And then all of a sudden the mother, the aunt, and the sister were all excited. You know what? His heart rate was going up! It means that he could hear! Of course you don’t see it, but the heart rate. “Come on Paolo, come on!” the mother was saying. And then I had to leave. That afternoon, the mother texted me that he passed away. So I’m glad that I was able to sing to him and so in the concert, I asked the audience for a minute of silence to say a prayer for Paolo Gallarde who just passed away.
I was having a concert at PhilamLife and there was a lady who said to my wife, “You know, I’m so upset at my husband. He was supposed to come here today, we were going to watch this concert together. But it’s already starting and he’s not here yet!”
One of the songs that I sang is “A Love to Last a Lifetime.” “We’re all just merely passing through, doing what we can do in our lifetime.” You know after I sang the song, she went to my wife and she said, “You know, that song of Jo has inspired me, I think I will go home and tell my husband how much I love him.” That had a positive impact on her. So if only for that, it was worth that I wrote that song.