aka Jose Mari Chan
T he “ber” months are here. And you know what that means…
It’s Christmas, even though it’s really three months away. All of us can’t be bothered to explain why we do it this way, it just is. So we put out our list: the gifts we’d want to give, what we’d want to have; who we’d give them to, who we’d receive them from. We anticipate the merrymaking and the parties. We feel warm thinking about traditions: Noche Buena,
Simbang Gabi. We brace for the coming of Jose Mari Chan… Say that again? Jose Mari Chan.
Let’s sing Merry Christmas, and a happy holiday, this season may we never forget, the love we have for Jesus…
You know the next lines, and you are singing along.
Yes, Jose Mari Chan is not only responsible for certified Pinoy pop classics your tito is crazy about in videoke, and for releasing the two best-selling records in OPM history (Constant Change and Christmas in our Hearts), he also wrote some of the best known Filipino Christmas music. It’s hard to not to hear “Christmas in Our Hearts” or “A Perfect Christmas” as they are played in malls, elevators, and churches.
When we walked into his office in Makati where his sugar business is located, Chan himself was all bright and cheerful. He even had gifts for us at FHM—CDS of his best-selling albums and… his Christmas records!
How do you feel about being named “The Father of Filipino Christmas music?”
I have to protest about that. I don’t deserve the tag. Christmas to me is a meaningful word and is at the center of our faith. To say na kapag Christmas kontrolado ko
ang mga malls and the Christmas music they play might appear as egoistic and that I am an egobloated artist. I don’t welcome the tag. The very fact the songs get played is good enough adulation and an accolade. I don’t need the title of “Father of Christmas Music” to be honest. Just hearing the songs played and sung at Holy Mass, in the malls, or parties is a good feeling enough. It is gratifying.
How did you come up with “Christmas in Our Hearts”?
After the success of Constant Change [the first ever diamond awarded album—over 400,000 in actual physical sales—in Philippine music history], my record label suggested we do a Christmas album. The first thing I did was compile all the meaningful Christmas songs of my younger years—songs like “Little Christmas Tree,” “May the Good Lord Bless You and Keep You” and even songs like The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” to name a few. But the label said we needed to record an original composition. So I submitted “Christmas in Our Hearts.” When the late Bella Tan [Universal Records owner] first heard it, she said it sounded like a Christian song instead of a pop song and that radio wouldn’t play it. At the time, you needed your songs to be played on radio to help promote the album. “You need a romantic Christmas song,” she said. In three days’ time, I wrote “A Perfect Christmas” and she now felt that was the carrier single. When the album was launched in October of 1990, she was almost sure radio would pick “A Perfect Christmas” but in reality, radio picked “Christmas in Our Hearts”.
Is it a must for all recording artists to record a Christmas song?
It’s up to the artists, I suppose. It sure is nice, though. Pop songs have limited lives.
Constant Change had several hits that all get played up to this day, but maybe not as much [as they did then]. But Christmas music, you know when the season arrives,
it will get played. There is a timelessness to Christmas music. I am fortunate enough to have done that. Twice in fact.
That was “Going Home to Christmas”, recorded 22 years after “Christmas in Our Hearts.” Why did it take so long to do that?
You don’t plan for these things. They just happen organically, naturally. “Christmas in Our Hearts” featured a duet with my daughter, Liza. Now for “Going Home to Christmas,” I not only got to do a duet with Liza once more—and now she is all grown up—but I also recorded with my sons, Joe and Mike, who are with the sons of Celeste Legaspi and Sampaguita in a band called Generations. And, I also had a duet with my granddaughter!
Have you ever had this experience where you’re in an elevator and your Christmas music is playing?
Yes, I have. There’s a mixture of elation and well, I am not sure, shyness because people look at me. I smile back but I am not really sure what to say.
“That’s me singing?”
Ha ha! I can never do that. But I do feel elated because it is a composition of mine and my compositions are like my children.
Can you share any anecdotes with your Christmas music?
(Thinks for a moment) I can share two: I was invited to sing at a birthday celebration in Lanao del Sur. Looking at the audience, 90 percent of the audience were Muslims. I sang a lot of songs and they asked for more during the encore. So I sang more. But the crowd was really
incredible. They kept asking for more. I sang a few more and eventually ran out of hits, I asked if they had any requests. And I was thinking maybe they would ask for songs like “Michelle” by The Beatles. Imagine my surprise when they requested for “Christmas in Our Hearts”. Now it was May and we’re right in the middle of summer. Fortunately, I had the minus one and sang it. The part where my daughter sings… the whole gym sang. It was incredible and I feel my hair standing up when I recall it. It showed me that that the song has transcended religion and it is relevant to most people. It is one of my best moments ever as a performer. The other was at Carnegie Hall where my daughter Liza happened to be a guest. It wasn’t Christmas but we were forced to sing “Christmas in Our Hearts.” And we got a long standing ovation for that.
Let’s talk about songwriting on general, as you have written quite a volume of hits.
Let me start with a caveat—i don’t read notes. I never learned to really play the piano and only know a few chords on the guitar.
That’s amazing! So how do you go about writing all these songs?
I don’t know (laughs). I think of a melody. I have always said words and music should have a perfect marriage. Words should fit the melody. Melody should illustrate what the words are saying. They are as complementary as husband and wife. One cannot live without the other. Is that a bit too much? Ha ha!
Our editor in chief, who reveres you as his musical hero, thinks “Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile?” is a perfect pop song. Tell us how you wrote that.
(Hums the introduction of the song) In 1972 or ’73, [record executive] Vic Del Rosario called me. He said there was international competition in Japan called the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival”and they were asking for entries from the Philippines. Vic was preparing several songs from different Filipino songwriters and he asked me if I had any. I came up with one quickly and that was “Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile?”. It took me three days, I think? I just thought of the melody, added some lines and began composing it. Now I always sing my songs to my wife [Mary Ann] and her initial comment was, “the title is too long”. She was used to my songs having short titles. And she felt it wasn’t going to be a hit. And it wasn’t the first time that someone said a song I wrote won’t be a hit. God gave me the talent, I guess.
Do you have new songs that you are ready to unleash on the world? Especially at a younger audience?
Right now, no. I am realistic that the music that is contemporary now has a different sound. If I insist on writing the songs I know and am known for, I will not sell. To the young people, my music is old-fashioned. On top of that, compact disc sales in the country have dropped dramatically. Kids nowadays download music or share files. There is no incentive to produce new material unless it is contemporary.
Do you know that vinyl is making a comeback?
Yes. Last year alone, vinyl sales topped the last big numbers in 1989. And there has been a huge demand for OPM records, too.
Fantastic news! Are the millennials buying?
Yes, they are. We tried buying an original vinyl record of Constant Change. Except that it cost P15,000!
That is too much money to spend on one record!