What I've Learned

Jose Mari Chan

71, singer-songwriter, businessman, and face of Christmas
IMAGE Sonny Thakur
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My maternal grandmother, who is from Cebu, loved music and was an avid record collector. Music flowed in the house most of the day—either from the radio box or our home phonograph. My mom also played the piano. So from early childhood, I was exposed to music of the popular genre. At a very young age, I found myself singing along to songs. By nine years old, my yaya accompanied me to a local radio station to participate in a Sunday show called Children’s Hour on DYRI, where kids my age sang, played the piano or recited poetry.

I was always picked to sing in grade school programs. I never had stage fright. At about 12 or 13 years old, I found myself humming my own melodies. A crop of singer-songwriters emerging in the pop music scene inspired me: Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, etc. Before that, singers like Sinatra and Perry Como only sang material written for them. I was 13 years old when I wrote my first original songs. They might have been derivative—but they were original.

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My father was a young Chinese immigrant from Fujian, straight out of poverty. He was only 13 when he came to the Philippines. He lost his father when he was only 10 and was determined to make something of himself. He is a self-made, strongly driven man.

Papa showed me that results can only come from hard work, dedication and persistence. He saw my musical gift early on, and although he never stifled it, he always stressed the need for me to stay on course in business.

My mother was the only child of a Chinese mestizo married to a Cebuana mestiza. At 16, Mama was crowned Miss Bisaya in Iloilo. Mama taught me kindness towards others. She showed us the ways of filial piety and family togetherness.

When I was a child growing up, the image of the invisible God for me was that of “Papa Dios.” Just as my flesh and blood father was loving and caring, so was Papa Dios. As I grew up, theology gave me an intellectual understanding of Judaism and Christianity. I went through a period of doubt, but little by little, I learned about true faith.

The world of business has taught me the culture of fair play and competition. I have to admit: I’m overly cautious towards diversification, which may be a weakness on my part. But that competitive spirit is something I carried into my music career. And that has helped me in both fields.

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I would love to have met Richard Rodgers in person—perhaps one of the greatest American songwriters, a prolific and brilliant musician.

One day, many of my songs, with a few exceptions, will be forgotten as belonging to the distant past. The few songs that will be loved and appreciated will be known for themselves. The songwriter who authored them will no longer be as important as the songs themselves.

The way to perpetuate the life of a song is to have it revived again and again through the years by the current generations of singers. And it will only happen if the future music lovers will still find the songs relevant to their experiences.

To me, my songs are like my children, coming from the “womb” of my creative heart and soul. When my songs are loved by a great number of people, I feel accomplished and fulfilled. My songs—like my children—will have lives of their own.

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“Christmas In Our Hearts” was first written as a poem by the late Chari Cruz-Zarate in 1988 titled, “Ang Tubig ay Buhay” for her Assumption College Silver Jubilee. After that Homecoming, I shelved the song. Then in 1990, I decided to use the same melody and turn it into a Christmas song with co-lyricist Rina Cañiza, whom I met only that same week after a Sunday Mass. Rina just came up to me from out of the blue, introduced herself and offered to co-write with me.

I feel extra blessed having a song of mine become a part of my most favorite time of the year. It is a song that carries the true meaning and the spirit of Christmas.

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Kara Ortiga
Kara Ortiga is a writer and the editor in chief of Supreme.
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