Who is Joan Sebastian -english edition-

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.

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.”