Why Jose Mari Chan is always in our hearts

‘Many times, when people ask me to sing it, I sing it with all my heart. And when I do concerts here and abroad, even though it’s not Christmas, sometimes they ask for it’

Illustration by Glenzkie Tolo

Like hearing one’s favorite Christmas song, it’s a delight to listen to Jose Mari Chan talk about his life in music.

Though he’s mostly associated with the start of the holiday season in the Philippines, when netizens outdo each other in posting his smiling face and the first lines of his phenomenal song “Christmas in Our Hearts” on social media, Joe — as he’s fondly called — has written and recorded dozens of other tunes since 1967.

Recognition as a composer from Filscap represented by Noel Cabangon.

A few weeks ago, Joe — the Iloilo-born son of a Chinese immigrant father and Filipino-Chinese mother — sat down for a Zoom interview with Daily Tribune. Excerpts:

Daily Tribune (DT): Do you remember the time when you caught the music bug?

Jose Mari Chan (JMC): I must have been only seven or eight years old when I would hum along to the music on the radio. We didn’t have television yet… I remember my parents bringing me to watch movie musicals. One of the first that I remembered was Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.

DT: When did you start writing songs?

JMC: I started as early as 15 years old. But you know, most of those songs, if I listened to them now, I would say they were derivatives… You’ll say ‘Hey, that sounds like this.’ Kinopya mo lang, parang ganoon. All composers start that way. Composers cannot avoid but copy certain lines of another song. You know, certain melodic patterns, certain progression of chords. Hindi mo ma-avoid ’yun. I was also guilty of that.

DT: I’ve always thought of you as the Cliff Richard of the Philippines.

JMC: Some people say Cliff Richard is the Joe Mari Chan of England.

DT: Were you conscious of that?

JMC: He was one of my idols in singing. I discovered, early on, that the timbre of my voice resembled that of Cliff Richard, although I sang Frank Sinatra songs… Cliff was very popular in my college days, so whenever my combo, my group, would sing at parties, I would sing Cliff Richard’s songs. I will sing it exactly the way he sang it on records para naman kiligin mga kolehiyala.

DT: Kaya ka pala sikat. But anyway, eventually you had your own identity.

JMC: Yeah, well, thank God for that… I wanted to be Jose Mari Chan, the singer-songwriter.

DT: When did “Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile” come out?

JMC: 1973.

DT: Did you make music while in New York?

JMC: Yes. And I would sell the songs back to the Philippines. (Sings) “I remember the boy but I don’t remember the feeling anymore…” Joey Albert.

DT: That’s your song.

JMC: That’s my song…. “Mamang Sorbetero,” Celeste Legaspi. “Hahanapin Ko,” Anthony Castelo. If you want to check your Spotify, Lea Salonga did a beautiful version of it.

DT: How did write “Christmas in Our Hearts”?

Signing autorgraphs in 2011.

JMC: Sunday morning, we were coming out of church. Me and my family. We were walking to our car and then hinabol ako ng isang lady, a young girl, who said, “Mr. Chan. Sorry, can I give my card? My name is Reena Cañiza. I’m an aspiring songwriter. It is my hope that one day you and I can collaborate on a song. You know, maybe you write the music, I write the lyrics.”

At the end of the day, I said why don’t I call her? I invited her to the house. And I sang a song to her. And she said, ‘Oh good. But then yung melody parang Pinoy.’ I said ‘No, no, it has to be in English.’ Because I’m known for English songs. It took her only two days to come back with a title “Christmas in Our Hearts.”

She and I collaborated, back and forth. correcting until almost nabuo na namin ’yung kanta. We were just missing the last verse. I prayed, “Lord, you have to help me.” Suddenly I came out with the lines that perfectly fit the ending of the song and those lines were, “Let love, like that starlight/On that first Christmas morn/Lead us back to the manger/Where Christ the child was born.”

DT: Was your daughter Liza really your choice to sing duet?

JMC: Originally sana ’yung choice ko was Lea Salonga. But she was not allowed by her record company to record for WEA. My second choice was Monique Wilson. But then she lost her voice two days before the recording. So, I approached my daughter and I said, “Can you learn the song? It’s a Christmas song, a duet with you.” Because the melody was simple enough, she picked it up. We went into recording and the rest is history.

DT: Do you get tired of listening to “Christmas in Our Hearts”?

JMC: When I hear it, I mean, I don’t sit down and listen to it like… parang you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you say, “Oh, I’m gonna perform.” That’s vanity. When it’s played on radio? It’s nice. But I don’t listen intently. I just know it. And then many times when people ask me to sing it, I sing it with all my heart. And when I do concerts here and abroad, even though it’s not Christmas, sometimes they ask for it.

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