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Obama Celebrates Kennedy Center Honorees Carlos Santana & Opera Singer Martina Arroyo

First Posted: Dec 09, 2013 11:47 AM EST
Carlos Santana

Photo : Facebook/Carlos Santana

Opera singer Martina Arroyo

Photo : Facebook/Martina Arroyo

Dubbed "a pioneer of Latin rock 'n' roll," Mexican-American Carlos Santana and renown Puerto Rican opera singer and Harlem native, Martina Arroyo, were among the five Kennedy Center Honorees, which is considered "the nation's highest honor for influencing American culture through the arts."

On Sunday evening, artistic talent lit up the White House as President Obama celebrated this year's Kennedy Center Honorees before the official ceremony that takes place at the Kennedy Center. The show, which will feature star-filled tribute performances for each honoree, will be broadcast on CBS Dec. 29 from 9 to 11 p.m.

Musicians Billy Joel, pianist Herbie Hancock and actress Shirley MacLaine are also among the five artists receiving this year's honors.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted the honorees for a black-tie dinner at the State Department on Saturday, praised Santana for bringing "the beauty of Latin culture and its rhythms and influences to the American mainstream," the Huffington Post reports.

"We love the music you made, not because it's Latin, but frankly because it is so very American," Kerry said.

Kerry added that the "artists had blazed trails and redefined the arts and American culture along the way."

"They are loved by so many, imitated by some, but never ever can they be replaced," Kerry said. "We are reminded that the role of arts can also never be replaced."

Music legend Santana, 66, whose greatest hits, include "Oye Como Va," "Black Magic Woman" and "Samba Pa Ti," is a 10-time Grammy award winner. He has teamed up with world-renowned artists, such as Tito Puente, Fleetwood Mac, Willie Nelson, Rob Thomas and Maná.

In his speech on Sunday, President Obama recalled a 22-year-old Santana who took the stage at Woodstock, joking about Santana's "state of mind," saying: "Carlos was in such a -- shall we say -- such an altered state of mind, that he remembers nothing about the other performances -- he thought the neck of his guitar was an electric snake, but that did not stop Carlos and his band from whipping the crowd into such a frenzy with a mind-blowing mix of blues, jazz, R&B and Latin music -- they had never anything like it -- and almost overnight Carlos Santana became a star.

"It was a pretty steep climb for a young man who grew up in Mexico, playing the violin for tourists charging 50 cents a song, but as a teenager Carlos fell in love with the guitar. He developed a distinctive sound that has drawn admirers from Bob Dylan to Herbie Hancock -- and he gave voice to a Latino community that had too often been invisible to too many Americans," President Obama said.

Latina opera singer Arroyo, 76, pioneered her way to the top, at first "imitating the singers outside an opera workshop when she was growing up in Harlem," according to the Huffington Post. Before she knew it she was signing a contract with New York's Metropolitan Opera and had a breakthrough with "Aida" in 1965. That role opened many doors to other great opera houses in London, Paris and Vienna.

Arroyo has a voice "that makes you happy to be alive, just to be in her audience," said opera star Jessye Norman. 

Back in 2008, I had the privilege of speaking with Kennedy Center Honoree, Shirley MacLaine about her portrayal as the legendary Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, for a Lifetime original movie about the iconic French fashion designer. She told me that the legendary Audrey Hepburn, who she acted alongside in "Children's Hour" (1961), suggested that one day she should consider playing Chanel. 

In a way, art mimicked life -- in the film Chanel (MacLaine) says, "To be irreplaceable, you have to be different."  

Looking back at MacLaine's body of work, the Kennedy Center honoree indeed stood out from the rest. 

MacLaine won an Oscar in 1983 for her work in "Terms of Endearment" and has been nominated five other times. She has also won an Emmy Award and seven Golden Globe Awards, including the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. MacLaine's additional film credits include "The Apartment" with Jack Lemmon, "Steel Magnolias" with Julia Roberts, "Postcards from the Edge" with Meryl Streep, "In Her Shoes" with Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, "Bewitched" with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell and "Rumor Has It" with Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Costner.

"Each of our brilliant honorees has given us something unique and of richness beyond measure," President Obama added. "As individuals and as a nation, together they bring us closer to President Kennedy's vision of the arts as a great humanizing and truth-telling experience. Their triumphs have lifted our spirits, and have lifted our nation, and have left us in a better and richer place."

According to The Hill, the Kennedy Center Honors, which have been awarded since the late 1970s, go to those in the performing arts for their contribution to American culture. More than 150 artists have received the award. The legendary, Walter Cronkite was known to host the Honors until 2002. Caroline Kennedy, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to Japan, succeeded Cronkite as a host.

Last year, actor Dustin Hoffman, TV host David Letterman, and three members of Led Zeppelin were among seven people who were honored.

Check out President Obama's speech celebrating this year's Kennedy Center Honorees:

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