By BRETT ZONGKER
WASHINGTON — For Carlos Santana, music has always been a calling. He idolized his mariachi musician father as a boy in their remote hometown in Mexico and later grew up with the Woodstock generation after immigrating to San Francisco.
Now the music legend will join the luminaries receiving this year’s highest national honors for influencing American culture through the arts. Santana is among five who will receive the Kennedy Center Honors.
Fellow honorees announced Thursday include actress Shirley MacLaine and three standout musicians spanning rock, jazz and opera — Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock and Martina Arroyo. Top entertainers will salute them in a gala performance Dec. 8 to be broadcast Dec. 29 on CBS.
Santana is unique among those who have received the cultural prize. He began learning English by watching American television from Tijuana, Mexico, and picked up the guitar after hearing blues and rock ‘n’ roll on the radio.
In an interview, Santana, 66, said he was grateful to receive an award he remembers watching others receive almost every year on television with his family.
“I guess people understand that Santana is not just a Mexican guitar player — I bring a collective-consciousness awareness agenda with me,” he said. “I grew up with the generation of Woodstock and Bob Marley, ‘One Love,’ and ‘Imagine,’ John Lennon. I am one of them, and we don’t do what we do to be commercial or to be popular or to be cute. It’s not entertainment or show business for us. For us, it’s a calling.”
He said his musical life has been about bridging cultures, drawing on sounds of Africa, Latin America and American Indians, as well as rock, jazz and the blues to create something new.
Last year, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts complained the Kennedy Center had long excluded Latinos from the honors. Of the more than 180 past honorees, only two had been Hispanic — Placido Domingo, the acclaimed Spanish tenor, and Chita Rivera, the actress and singer of Puerto Rican descent — the group said.
The criticism led to a revised selection process this year, including the solicitation of nominations from the public, and a new committee of artists and officials to help narrow the potential honorees. Santana has been a contender in recent years for his strong credentials, said show producer George Stevens Jr.
Santana, who swept the 2000 Grammy Awards in nine categories with his album “Supernatural,” said more mainstream institutions should be recognizing Latino artists as well.
In December, President Barack Obama will host the recipients at the White House, and Secretary of State John Kerry will host a dinner for them at the State Department.
Joel, the “Piano Man” and one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, has devoted his life to music since he left high school before graduating. The 64-year-old, who wrote and performed such unforgettable hits as “Uptown Girl,” ”The Longest Time,” ”Allentown” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” said in a written statement that it is meaningful to join the roster of outstanding musicians who came before.
“But to be chosen for this special award essentially for doing what I love most amazes me more than anything,” he said.
The honors stand apart from other awards and feel almost like a homecoming, said MacLaine, 79, who grew up in nearby Arlington, Va.
“It’s a more global kind of recognition … not just Hollywood or New York,” she told The Associated Press. “The people who get these awards are contributing to the world’s art, and I feel privileged to be one of them.”
After nearly 60 years as one of Hollywood’s leading actresses, MacLaine hasn’t stopped. She began this year with a role in the popular “Downton Abbey” on PBS and will close 2013 with her latest film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” alongside Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.
Hancock, born in Chicago, became a classical music prodigy after his parents bought him a piano as a boy. By age 11, he was playing with the Chicago Symphony. In high school, though, he discovered jazz and began learning by listening.
“The more I looked into it, the more it pulled me like a magnet,” he said. “And I was hooked forever.”
In 1963, Hancock joined the Miles Davis Quintet, one of the great jazz ensembles. He has gone on to embrace electronic music and collaborate with the likes of Annie Lennox, John Mayer and Christina Aguilera.
Hancock, 73, said he is overwhelmed “to be on that list of people whose work I’ve respected for so many years during my lifetime.”
Arroyo, born and raised in Harlem as the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and an African-American mother, said her voice was discovered by accident in high school when she was heard imitating the singers outside an opera workshop. She went on to star in the great opera houses of Paris, London and Vienna, and performed 199 times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City after her breakthrough performance in “Aida” in 1965.
Arroyo, 76, said she is most proud of her current work teaching young opera students, though she called receiving the Kennedy Center Honors unimaginable.
“We go around the world singing, and people say oh, there’s an American singer. But this is your government saying, yeah, we like you, too,” she said. “There’s no higher group for me than my country. That makes it extremely special.”
Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat .