Jose Mari Chan and the song that made Filipino Christmas

Photo via beta.gist.ph

Photo via beta.gist.ph

By Alex Almario/CNNPhilippines.com – Jose Mari Chan, from the moment he sung into a microphone, was destined to become the official voice of Christmas. His voice is clean and warm like your favorite holiday sweater. It glitters like December lights. It’s hopeful and ageless like the holidays. That he produced the biggest Christmas hit of all time at the height of FM radio, ensuring its immortality and ubiquity in malls, houses, taxi cabs, and jeepneys for generations to come, is a modern day Christmas miracle. It’s the Three Wise Men spotting the Star of Bethlehem that led them to the infant Jesus — a confluence of circumstances that make perfection possible.

Hearing “Christmas in Our Hearts” is the crystallization of the Christmas experience: it takes us back to more innocent times, back when we were still kids who believed in Santa Claus and magical possibilities. To those old enough to remember, the memory involved the song’s birth in a world with no iconic OPM Christmas pop tunes, and there it was, in 1990, taking over radio, then the streets with carollers hastening the spread. It became the biggest hit of the year in a matter of weeks, going as viral as it could possibly get in the pre-internet world. Twenty-six years later and the song’s staying power remains potent. Every December, it’s 1990 all over again.

You have to wonder: he has to be tired of that song by now, right?

“Whenever I hear my songs on radio, I try not to listen to the songs too long because I don’t want the old songs to influence me in writing my new songs,” he says. “So I’m happy when they play my old songs, a throwback to the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but after a while, I move on to another station. But I will never get tired of hearing my Christmas songs in the mall because it reminds me that the goodwill that I have given through my song continues to live on.”

As much as Jose Mari Chan has embraced being The Christmas Singer, this well-earned distinction happens to be grossly reductive. By the time “Christmas in Our Hearts” laid claim to our collective Christmas memories forever, Jose Mari Chan already had a full career other solo artists can only dream of: he had a smash debut in the ‘60s, a string of hits in the ‘70s, a greatest hits compilation in the ‘80s, and before the decade was over, a “comeback” album that made history as the first ever OPM diamond record.

It was a career that burgeoned despite pressure coming from his family to prioritize their sugar business over his musical interests. “In 1965, ABS-CBN had a daily T.V. show called “Nineteeners” and they asked me to host the show but they had to ask my dad’s permission,” he recalls in an interview with Pia Hontiveros for CNN Philippines’ News.PH Christmas special. “My dad, of course, was a businessman, whose business I inherited. He agreed to have me host the show provided that I only do two shows a week and that I get no salary. I guess he didn’t want me to get used to doing something that I love and being paid for it.”

The hosting gig would lead to his first single, “Afterglow,” and his debut LP “Deep in My Heart,” whose title track, a veritable classic, remains one of Jose Mari Chan’s most recognizable hits to this day. The man got paid. In fact, years before “Christmas in Our Hearts,” Jose Mari Chan had already earwormed his way into the collective Filipino consciousness with a bevy of popular commercial jingles for Dial Soap, Philippine Airlines, Knorr Real Chinese Soup, and Alaska (“walang tatalo sa Alaska”), among others. He says he’s written close to a hundred commercial jingles in his career, most of which he can still sing from memory (and most of which are featured in his 1997 compilation “Strictly Commercial”).

In the early ‘70s, Jose Mari Chan became one of the top singer-songwriters in the country. He represented the Philippines in the 1973 World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, Japan, where he performed his song “Can We Just Stop and Talk a While” in front of tens of thousands of people. A year later, he was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines for the Arts. In a music climate thick with ballads, Jose Mari Chan managed to distinguish himself from the overwrought vocal stylings of contemporaries like Eddie Peregrina, Rico J. Puno, and Victor Wood. Apart from his original English compositions, what stood out was his calm, cool voice. His songs weren’t desperate lovelorn cries; they were wistful reflections on love, whether it was the maturation of romance through time in “Afterglow” or love ennobled by the fragility of time in “A Love to Last a Lifetime.”

In 1975, family commitments began to outweigh his already successful musical career as he moved to the U.S. to take over the family business. “After I got married, I promised my mother-in-law that I would refrain from doing show business,” he tells Hontiveros. “But you know, once you have the music in your blood — in your heart — it wants to get out.”

After a hiatus in which musical trends dramatically changed and a new, younger breed of singers were taking over the industry, something unexpected happened: Jose Mari Chan, at age 44, returned and overtook youngsters like Gary Valenciano and Raymond Lauchengco to become the biggest male pop singer of 1989.

His comeback album, “Constant Change,” produced hit after hit: “Beautiful Girl,” “Can’t We Start Over Again,” “My Girl, My Woman, My Friend,” and “Please Be Careful with My Heart,” a sweet duet with then 19-year-old Regine Velasquez that would inspire the May-December romance in a top-rating ABS-CBN teleserye, “Be Careful with My Heart,” that ran for two years.

Perhaps it was a testament to Jose Mari Chan’s timeless appeal, or maybe an indictment on how little OPM had changed in two decades, but the success of “Constant Change” was unprecedented. It became the first diamond record in OPM history, back when the standard was still at 400,000 copies and not the post-piracy-calibrated 150,000 of today. His follow-up a year later, “Christmas in Our Hearts,” would match this feat. Eventually, both albums would reach double diamond status and become the top two best-selling OPM albums ever.

“In 1990, Universal Records suggested that I do my first Christmas album,” he recalls. “That’s when ‘Christmas in Our Hearts’ was born.” Lifting a melody he wrote two years earlier for a song based on a friend’s poem, Jose Mari Chan started working on the title track. He initially eyed Lea Salonga as his duet partner but due to contract restrictions with OctoArts, the “Miss Saigon” star was unavailable. Luckily, he had a fallback living in his house.

“It all came so suddenly,” Liza Chan-Parpan fondly recalls his father’s decision to tap her vocal services. “It was very rushed, I was like a last minute choice.” The father-and-daughter duet was a serendipitous touch, as it imbued the song with a familial intimacy that complemented its broader religious themes. It’s undeniably a part of the song’s timeless appeal.

Twenty-two years later, having fully embraced his legacy as the voice of Pinoy Christmas, he released “Going Home to Christmas,” an album that imagined the holidays as a place we return to at the end of every year. This time, he brought the other kids along: Michael Philip, Jose Antonio, and Franco, who have apparently inherited their father’s crisp timbre (Jose and Michael are both professional musicians and co-members of the band Generation). The three join their father and their relatively seasoned sister, Liza, in the song “Christmas Moments,” where Jose Mari Chan toggles between different life stages — boyhood, early fatherhood, adolescence — to illustrate the timelessness of Christmas magic. It is written not only from the perspective of someone who has lived and witnessed these moments, but also from someone who has developed a unique appreciation for the holidays.

After all, Christmas made Jose Mari Chan immortal. And he has given Christmas the face and voice it deserves. “Christmas creates cherished moments, oh dear. It means many things for us from year to year,” he sings. “Years come and go, like a river they flow. But what remains is the love that we know.”

When “Christmas In Our Hearts” came out, the children of my generation had probably stopped believing in Santa Claus, with gradual realization, or acceptance, like how all disillusionments tend to happen. It was, in a way, a first bout with nostalgia — something that had changed because we had changed, like old toys or kisses from our mothers. The magic just wasn’t new anymore. But “Christmas in Our Hearts” became the new magic that year. It allowed us to feel like little kids again because the innocence of the song belonged in the here and now.

It’s that kind of innocence we yearn for every December, even if we’re not aware of that yearning. It’s there every time we hear his voice in the mad Christmas rush. It’s there every time we joke about hearing his voice for the umpteenth time this month. It’s an innocence that he, at 71, still holds, an innocence that we yearn for this year more than ever. “I’ve said this very often for the past many years: my Christmas wish is for the gap between the rich and poor in our country to narrow,” he shares. “So that prosperity will filter down to the grassroots. I’d like to see that in my lifetime.”

It’s holiday season, that rare time of year when hope, like Jose Mari Chan’s voice, feels inescapable. ‘Tis the season to believe everything he says.

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