Given Syl Johnson’s Friday night performance at the Bell House, my newfound expectations of septuagenarian performers had swelled. Still, they were easily eclipsed by Hugh Masekela Sunday at Central Park’s Summerstage. On this perfectly sunny afternoon Masekela was an engaging stage presence. Contorting his face into expressions of excitement, bewilderment, strength, and happiness, whichever the moment called for, Masekela was always the first to dance and twist, smacking his hand percussion with enthusiasm along the way. When he did pick up his flugelhorn (nearly a quarter the size of his diminutive, avuncular frame) his tone was brilliantly gentle, but still fully capable of pulling off impressive flurries.
Masekela was playful with the crowd throughout his set, often them getting worked up with his dance moves. While introducing “Stimela (The Coal Train)”, he teased the New York crowd not to “even try and be cool” by remaining quiet. Listing-off the geographic origins of the various coal trains depicted in the song (to wild cheers each time) he joked that it wasn’t an immigration roll call, before splicing his subsequent solo with variations of the “Star Spangled Banner”.
Unfortunately Masekela eschewed the obvious and omitted “The Big Apple” from his set, instead opting for more upbeat hits, like “Lady” and “Grazin’ in the Grass” (though “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” was nowhere to be found). Ending with “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” however, he endowed the crowed with the spirit of buoyant, civil, musical protest that has inspired his music for the past half century.