“Let’s light our Christmas trees for a bright tomorrow.”
Within the many loud noises in the world lies a soft voice of hope that embodies the season. Amplifying this remarkable voice, last November 15, Globe Business Academy presented Our Christmas Story, an online Fireside Chat which features an intimate holiday discussion between accomplished author-entrepreneur Francis Kong as host and the Father of Philippine Christmas Music himself, Jose Mari Chan, as the evening’s featured guest.
Paying tribute to Globe’s Saludo SMEs and Gift Local campaigns, which aim to respectively empower Filipino MSMEs with practical digital solutions and spotlight them to help them thrive for success, Our Christmas Story delves into a timely discussion of life, business, and hope in the midst of the still-ongoing pandemic. With the spirit of the Christmas season, it also hopes to build a space of dialogue where local business owners can seek guidance and support from the content provided by its fireside chat. Check out the inspiring conversation below:
Business: On supporting family and your own people
Although Jose Mari Chan is most known for his career as a nationally beloved singer-songwriter, he has also maintained a successful track record elsewhere, having taken over as the chairman and CEO of his family’s sugar business, the Binalbagan Isabela Sugar Company. It is with this business acumen that, during these trying times, Chan also offers his experiences and advice of adapting to the new norms.
Francis Kong: Your father started the business, and it was passed on for you to manage. Did he ever force you to run the business?
Jose Mari Chan: My father passed away in 1994. He never really forced my siblings and me to go into the business, but what he did was very clever. In the summers, he would encourage us to spend some time in the office to get exposed to what he was doing in the business, hoping for us to be interested. Two or three of my siblings were drawn to accounting. They had that gift of numbers, so he was very happy. Some were drawn into the marketing side. These are the “people persons.” But he never forced us. He just opened our mind and our eyes to it, and then we would ask questions.
I remember, as a little boy, when I would go to the bodega, there would be stacks of sugar. And then I would go to the vat, where [my dad] would mix brown sugar with molasses to make muscovado. I would be interested. That’s how my interest was piqued.
2020 and 2021 have been specifically been challenging for a lot of business owners. How have you been, and how are you handling such a difficult situation?
In my office here in Makati, at least for the first year and a half, we’ve been running the office with a skeletal force to limit the [problems with] social distancing. Some would report on Mondays and Wednesdays, some on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ve been helping them with transportation allowances because this pandemic has caused a lot of transport problems.
But in the sugar mill, it’s work as usual. I have enforced the vaccination policy. I make sure that everyone is vaccinated for their protection and the protection of the employees. What I did was I give a one-month bonus to people who get vaccinated. That’s to encourage them.
What encouragement and advice would you like to give business owners who are listening to us tonight?
To protect your people, you have to give that sense of security. No matter what, we’re going to keep you. And as I mentioned, I even give transportation allowances because a few of them told me, “Ang mahal na ngayon to go to work.” You take their word for it, so I give transportation allowances. I always tell them that this is temporary. Eventually, this pandemic will pass. The important thing is to make sure that you are healthy.
Music: On success, longevity, and Christmas in Our Hearts
On the other side of Jose Mari Chan’s colorful life is his passion for music. From his youthful origins as a teenaged DJ to the roots of his most popular Christmas song, Chan reminisces and shares the joy of expressing himself in the way that he loves most.
Being in business and the musician that you are, how do you balance both?
I guess, you know, my father from early on — when I was only 10 years old or 12 years old — he knew that I loved music. I even guested in a children’s radio show. He saw that I loved music. At the same time, he never stopped. He encouraged me. Invariably, I would be asked to sing a capella. And he seemed to be very proud of me.
In fact, I was 13 years old when I was made a radio disk jockey every Sunday in a local radio station in Iloilo. DYHF. I know that my father would listen to the radio when I would be onboard. He never corrected my grammatical errors, and I had plenty of them. I guess he was amused that this son of his liked music.
To get straight to the point, I was a college student at the Ateneo. The year was 1965. I became active in singing in school programs. […] I developed a reputation as a good MC. One day in 1965, Pete Roa, who was the head of ABS-CBN, came to the house to ask my father’s permission if I could host a television they were putting up. The show was called Nineteeners.
My father was polite. He was listening to Pete Roa’s proposal. He saw the glint in my eyes. That I was excited. That I wanted not to become popular but I loved the music part of it and to host this TV show. He told Pete Roa, “Okay, I will agree, but I have three conditions: The first condition is that his grades would not suffer. The minute I see his grades suffer, that’s it. Secondly, Don’t make him host every day. I would agree if he does one day a week. And the third condition was don’t pay him a salary.
It was later on that I saw the wisdom in his condition. Because he saw that I enjoyed doing it, but if I got paid doing that, then I would never stop doing it anymore. I would probably not join him in the business, you see.
How are you able to sustain your success and career all these years, whereas in the field of music and entertainment, for example, we normally have this feeling of “this is no longer his time.” That’s not your case. What’s your secret to that?
Well, in terms of music, the secret for your music to live on for generations is to have them revived by young artists. Maybe nowadays, who wants to hear Jose Mari Chan singing, right? But I feel that the songs that I have written are still relevant to the young people. If I sang [If We Only Had More Time Together] myself, people would say that sounds old-fashioned, right? But if they could be revived by the young singers, then that’s assuring yourself that your songs can live on for the next generation.
Tonight’s fireside chat is aptly entitled “Our Christmas Story.” Can you tell us the story behind “Christmas in Our Hearts”?
In 1990, with the success of “Beautiful Girl,” “Please Be Careful With My Heart,” “My Girl, Woman, My Friend,” my late producer, the late Bella Dy Tan, suggested to me to have my Christmas album. And I said, “Yeah!” I never thought of that. All of the big artists — Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand — they all have Christmas albums. Yeah. Good. We needed an original Christmas song, so I had to first come up with a melody.
I remembered two years before, 1988, I had a friend named Chari Cruz, who called me and asked me if I could set her poem to music. Her poem was entitled “Ang Tubig ay Buhay”. It was going to be used as their homecoming song for her high school class. She’s a good friend of mine, and we used to sing together when we were in college, so I said, “Of course, send me the lyrics.”
I remembered that melody. And I said, “Sayang.” Because after that homecoming, that song was shelved. So I got the melody, and I said that I’m going to turn this into a Christmas song.
One Sunday morning, I prayed, “Please give me the inspiration to write meaningful lyrics. I don’t want to write about Santa Claus. I don’t want to write about Rudolf the Red-nosed reindeer and sleigh rides and snow. Let me write meaningful words for this song.”
We went to church, and as we were coming out, there was a young lady who gave chase, ran after me, and knocked on the window of the car. She introduced herself as Rina Cañiza. She gave me her card, and she said that she was a budding songwriter, and that it was her dream that one day we can write a song together.
To make a long story short, we both came up with the song “Christmas in Our Hearts” using the melody of “Ang Tubig ay Buhay.”
In further celebration of the holiday season, Jose Mari Chan has announced the release of his latest album Going Home to Christmas. Originally released in 2012, the new record will feature 22 tracks that express the Christmas spirit of sharing and giving, even in hard times such as the pandemic.
To express what Christmas means to him, Chan explained, “The message of Christmas is that we should have a grateful heart for all the blessings that we have been showered with — not only to be grateful to our blessings but that we have to share our blessings. We have to be generous with our love. Because giving and sharing is the real Christmas way. That’s what Christmas means to me.”
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