Jose Mari Chan Does the Philippines’ ‘Mr. Christmas’

EAs of September 1, the Internet in the Philippines begins to abound with memes of a septuagenarian man of Chinese origin. Posts usually feature variations of him peeking into the frame. Its appearance unofficially marks the start of the country’s long holiday season, colloquially known as “Ber month”.

The staring face is that of Jose Mari Chan, a Filipino sugar company owner whose iconic status has earned him the local nickname “Mr. Christmas.” While Mariah Carey’s voice may resonate in the winter spirit in America, it’s Chan’s chants that over the past few decades have become ubiquitous in the last four months of each year in malls, restaurants , karaoke bars and radio shows across the Southeast archipelago. Asian nation of 110 million people.

Read more: The surprising origins of 5 Christmas traditions

Chan, who considers himself “first as a businessman, then as a singer-songwriter”, has always had a love for music. Although he had to prioritize the sugar industry he had inherited, he simultaneously pursued a career as an artist, releasing his first album in 1969 when he was in his twenties. Throughout the 1970s, Chan, who is recognizable by his warm tenor, became one of the country’s most renowned ballads and composers, producing more albums, numerous television and film soundtracks, and several jingles. popular commercials.

In 1975, after the notoriously corrupt authoritarian ruler of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., “nationalized the sugar industry in all but name”, according to the New York Times, which sparked a sugar crisis in the country, Chan and his family moved to New York to pursue the family business in America. When the Marcos Sr. dictatorship fell in 1986, they returned and Chan, with new music, made a return to the airwaves.

But it wasn’t until 1990 that Chan would record the song for which he eventually became most famous. He wrote it as a duet and originally, he says, he had wanted Lea Salonga – who at the start of her illustrious career was already an award-winning Filipina actress and singer – to perform it with him. When label deals kept them from working together, however, another singer was lined up. But then this replacement developed a raspy voice before arriving at the studio. In a pinch, his daughter Liza stepped in. “Christmas in Our Hearts” has become a sensation: the father-daughter duo have since performed it around the world, and the album it appeared on (with the same name as the single) is a top seller. of all time in the country. Again this year, Grammy-winning American a cappella pop group Pentatonix have covered the song, featuring Salonga, on their latest holiday album, a collaboration that Chan says takes the hit back to its history of ‘origin.

Courtesy of José Mari Chan/Jojo Guingona

Today, Chan, now 77, is enjoying his huge seasonal popularity. He’s aware of memes, and when people of all ages ask for selfies with him on the street, he’s happy to oblige. “I don’t have the heart to say no,” he told TIME. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant.”

One thing Chan isn’t so comfortable with is the nickname he’s been given: “Mr. Christmas.” As a devout Catholic, which isn’t unusual in the Philippines, where more than 80 % of the population shares the same faith, he says he would rather the holiday spotlight remained focused on God.”This season, may we never forget the love we have for Jesus” is even a refrain of his most popular song. If you must, Chan insists, you can call him the “little drummer” instead. (His friends just call him Joe Mari.)

Chan credits divine intervention for his musical success — he’s received numerous industry lifetime achievement awards — particularly for “Christmas in Our Hearts.” He recalls a producer lamenting at the time of recording that it “sounded too much like a Christian song” to become a high end. But that wasn’t about Chan; he tells TIME that he always believed “the hand of the Holy Spirit was on the song from the very beginning.” In fact, it’s no coincidence, he suggests, that the arranger, Homer Flores, has the same initials that represent the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph).

Yet as religious as he is, Chan himself is no stranger to the growing commercialization of Christmas, which is taking place in the Philippines as it is everywhere else in the world. Chan is a brand ambassador for Shopee, the regional online retail giant, as well as IKEA, among other companies. After all, he’s still a businessman first and foremost, he recalls. And he doesn’t mind encouraging consumer spending “if it helps bring in the Christmas spirit.”

But unlike his publicity work, his sugar business or his real estate investments, Chan says he’s not primarily interested in making a profit for his holiday songs. He would like his words to spread everywhere, even if, he suggests, in many years people will end up forgetting the man who wrote them. “With my Christmas songs,” he says, “I’m there for the goodwill and for the joy people have in their hearts when they sing.”

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