Santana feted at Kennedy Center Honors

Santana feted at Kennedy Center Honors
President Barack Obama, right, congratulates 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, Carlos Santana, during a reception honoring the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipients, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. |

It was a doubly historic night for Carlos Santana, the former Tijuana guitarist who was one of five iconic artists honored Sunday at the 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. He was feted alongside this year’s other four honorees: Rock Hall of Famer Billy Joel; actress/dancer Shirley MacLaine; opera star Martina Arroyo; and jazz great Herbie Hancock.

Santana became both the first Mexican immigrant and the first Latin-rock musician to be accorded this prestigious award, which has previously been given to such icons as Barbra Streisand, B.B. King and Yo-Yo Ma. (La Jolla native Gregory Peck, who died in 2003, remains the only San Diegan to be selected (in 1991) as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.)

He is also only the third Hispanic artist to be selected in the history of the Kennedy Center Honors, which was filmed by CBS-TV and will air in San Diego Dec. 29 on KFMB Channel 8. The annual event has been described as both Washington's answer to the Academy Awards and the American pop-culture equivalent of being knighted.

Yet, while he was humbled and proud to be singled out, Santana made it clear during a red-carpet interview in the foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that his goal is to transcend borders, race and nationalities through his music.

“To a lot of people, it means a lot (that I am Latino),” he said of his selection for this most prestigious honor. “To me, it means that I am a beam of light, and if you want it to be Latino, black, yellow, that is your business. I am a beam of light and I want to remind everyone, so are you.

“Like Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Allah, we are all a beam of light – and then you can be anything.”

Asked to recall what he saw when, as a teenager, he stood in front of Apex Music in downtown San Diego, admiring the Gibson and Fender guitars in the store window, he beamed broadly. “I could totally see my future,” he said.

Santana, 66, has been a Bay Area resident since the early 1960s and is a longtime U.S. citizen. On Sunday, he was seated directly to the right of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the presidential box in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center, which was filled with a capacity audience of 2,300.

Seated on the guitarist’s other side were the evening’s other honorees. The audience included everyone from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleague, Sonia Sotomayor (who was on hand to salute Arroyo, a close friend) to Steve Winwood and Sheila E. The latter two were part of the night’s rousing, multi-song tribute to Santana, along with Juanes, guitarist Tom Morello, Mana singer Fher Olvera and 2012 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Buddy Guy.

Speaking on the red carpet before the event began, Santana said he was especially pleased to be saluted alongside Hancock, a longtime friend and collaborator. "We don't let anyone define and encapsulate us (in) something limited with a short ceiling," he said. "We are musicians and we play live. Woman is the melody, man is the rhythm and the band don't matter! So we articulate the language for sound vibrations and our intention is..."