April 30, 2004

Joan Sebastian: The People's Poet

By Tom Pryor

Joan Sebastian is one of Mexico’s biggest music stars, a multi-Latin Grammy award winner and a top-grossing live performer. But writing songs that touch the people he loves is still his greatest passion.

Sebastian on horse

Joan Sebastian performing at the National Auditorium in Mexico City on April 30th.

José Manuel Figueroa, a.k.a. Joan Sebastian, is one of the best-known voices in contemporary Mexican regional music. Known as both “The People’s Poet” and “The King of Jaripeo,” the 53 year-old singer/songwriter has been writing and arranging songs since he was a teenager, and has racked up Spanish-language hits from the 1970s to the present. As a performer, he’s one of Mexico’s top-grossing acts, regularly selling out venues on both sides of the border. As a songwriter, his compositions have been covered by a pantheon of Mexican stars, including Rocio Durcal, Luis Miguel, Vicente Fernández and more. As an artist and ASCAP member, he’s been showered with awards, including multiple Latin Grammys and a Silver Pen award. As a celebrity, he’s been a staple of Mexican tabloids – from his brief TV career as a telenovela star, to his high-profile romances, to his recent battle with cancer, Sebastian’s life has been an open book. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My fans keep me going,” Sebastain explains on the phone from his ranch in Mexico. “When I got sick, I stopped working for two months. I was worried that my fans would freak when they saw how much weight I lost. But they didn’t care. When I saw how much love my fans had for me, it gave me the strength to keep going and return to performing. So if they want to know about me and my life, how can I say no to that?”

But for Sebastian, fame didn’t come easily. Hailing from the small, rural town of Juliantla in the Mexican state of Guerrero, Sebastian began writing homesick songs at the age of 7, when he was sent away to school in nearby Guanajuato. “I was a quiet kid,” he recalls, “always writing and listening. I learned a lot by taking popular songs and changing the lyrics.” When Sebastian was 11 he returned to his hometown, and began learning the rudiments of songcraft. “My grandmother taught me some songwriting, and my father played the harmonica,” he explains. “I used to take my father’s harmonica out to the fields and practice. It was good for me, but I think it scared the bulls.”

When Sebastian was 13, his father gave him his first guitar, and when he was 14, packed him off to a Seminary – two events that would shape Sebastian’s future career.

“At the time I really wanted to be a priest,” he says. “Even after I left [the Seminary], and decided to dedicate my life to music, I took that spirituality with me. I learned how to get into my own heart and soul, and I believe it still shapes the way I write.”

At 18 he left the Seminary and took a job at a resort, where he would entertain guests and co-workers by singing his own songs over the PA system. One of those guests was film star Angelica Maria; and with her encouragement, Sebastian soon packed himself off to Mexico City. “This was 1968. I bought green bellbottoms & a matching jacket, and I thought I was ready to be a star.”

There he hooked up with producer Chucho Rincon, who signed him to Capitol records in 1969. Sebastian recorded a few sides, and scored some local airplay, but never quite broke out. Eventually he became more successful as a producer than a performer at Capitol, and though he was making a comfortable living, he didn’t want to give up his dream. Sebastian left the label in 1974 and began traveling around Mexico, playing bars and resorts and taking odd jobs to support his music.

This risky strategy paid off when, after a brief detour as a car salesman in Chicago, Sebastian was invited to play for Mexican audiences in Texas and California. In 1975 he returned to Mexico, and was quickly picked up by the Musart label -- where he’s been ever since. “I like to say that I’m not married; but I’ve always been faithful to Musart,” Sebastian jokes.



Joan Sebastian performing in Mexico City; Sebastian accepting his 2003 Songwriter of the Year Award with (from left) ASCAP CEO John LoFrumento, ASCAP President and Chairman Marilyn Bergman, ASCAP Heritage Award winner Olga Tanon and ASCAP Senior VP of Latin Membership Alexandra Lioutikoff.

It’s been a fruitful collaboration, too. He scored his first hit, “El Camino del Amor,” for the label in 1976. “You know, I wrote that song when I was young, but nobody ever liked it,” Sebastain chuckles. “So I had my first hit at the age of 25 with a song I wrote when I was 15.”

“El Camino del Amor” combined traditional Northern Mexican cowboy machismo with a surprisingly romantic and sentimental touch; unlocking a formula that would produce hit after hit for Sebastian. He would go on to score seven #1 hits in Mexico until 1983, when he took a two-year break from recording. The hits had temporarily stopped coming and he retreated to his ranch to re-evaluate.

“I raise bulls,” he explains, “and I was taking them to the jaripeos (local rodeos), to show them off. Sometimes I would sing there -- just for fun, really. I was writing jaripeo songs since 1981, for just my neighbors and to entertain the crowd.”

In 1985 he took these songs into the studio, scoring a big comeback with the mariachi-tinged album Rumores, which earned him the title “King of the Jaripeos.” In 1988, Sebastian released Joan Sebastian con Tambora, his first banda record -- tapping into the hyper-kinetic brass band style that swept Mexican regional music in the 80s -- and scored one of the biggest hits of his career.

With his music back on track, Sebastian was able to embark on a short-lived television career, appearing for one season on Tu y Yo, a wildly popular Mexican telenovela, where he became the highest-paid star in Mexican television at the time.

Sebastian was at the height of his success when life threw him another curveball -- he was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. But, like the comeback kid he is, he took it in stride and faced the disease with courage, humour and grace.

“My father taught me a lot in life, and he still inspires me,” he explains. “When the doctors told me I had cancer, it inspired me to fight. So I wrote a song called ‘El Toro.’ It was a way to fight. It was easier to deal with this through a song first. Once I did that, I could go on fighting. Also, it was a message to my fans that I wasn’t going to give up, and that they shouldn’t give up in their lives, either.”

After taking a brief hiatus for treatment, Sebastian returned to the spotlight, continuing to tour and record – and receiving more than a few rewards for his courage and his lifetime of work. In 2000, ASCAP honored him with The Silver Pen Award, and he won two Latin Grammys for song and album of the year in the Regional/Mexican category. He did it again this year, too, taking home Latin Grammys for Best Banda Album and Best Regional Mexican Song. He also won an El Premio award in Puerto Rico in March of this year.

But Sebastian doesn’t let all these accolades go to his head. “Nowadays when I write my songs I’m not looking for a hit or thinking about how to please the market. I’m pulling up my experiences and the lessons life’s taught me and sharing them with the people I love. Surviving cancer was a gift, and I’m not going to waste it by chasing hits. Hits will come and go, but the hearts that I touch with my music are what really matter to me.”