By Gerald M. Gay
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 04.13.2007
Lucas Bok is pumped on the eve of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s first visit to the Old Pueblo.
But it isn’t our majestic mountain ranges or delightfully warm weather he’s looking forward to.
Tucson is one of the last destinations on Soweto’s three-month-long, 47-city North American tour.
A few more stops and the 26-strong chorus will be on its way back to South Africa for a couple months of well-deserved rest and relaxation.
“One of our guys is getting married when we get back so we are all looking forward to that,” said Bok, the choir’s music director, in a phone interview last week from California. “We are ready to go home and spend some time with our families.”
Not that Bok isn’t proud of the work the Soweto Gospel Choir has done on this tour or over the past five years since its creation.
Like Ireland’s Celtic Woman and China’s Twelve Girls Band, the Soweto Gospel Choir is more commercial than grassroots, a cultural powerhouse created just as much to profit off as to expose the strong gospel culture found in Johannesburg’s South Western Townships.
In both respects, the group has done quite well for itself.
Soweto has performed in-country for the likes of former South African President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu.
Globally, the choir has toured nonstop, performing regularly in the United States, Australia, Europe and parts of Asia.
Bok, who was first brought into Soweto as the bass player, said he has experienced some fantastic things as a part of the group.
He was there to play Carnegie Hall in 2005 and again in February — concerts he called “mind-blowing” — and on hand to help accept the Grammy the choir won for its sophomore album, “Blessed,” earlier this year.
“I was a little bit surprised how popular we have become because I thought Ladysmith Black Mambazo had already been all over,” Bok said. “But we are ushering a new sound overseas. We came with something new. We are so fortunate God allowed us to do that.”
Bok said the group has also been fortunate enough to give back to its community. Part of the money earned during Soweto’s tours goes to Nkosi’s Haven, a foundation the choir adopted to help support families ravaged by HIV/AIDS.
Nearly 19 percent of the country’s population is infected with HIV/AIDS, and South Africa has the sixth-highest incidence of HIV in the world, according to the AIDS Foundation South Africa Web site (www.aids.org.za).
Soweto has raised more than $210,000 to help families pay for housing, food, school clothing, electricity and funeral costs.
“This is not a foreign thing to us,” Bok said. “We see people with AIDS and we see what it does to the family. It destroys them. I remember the pact we made when we went on tour the first time. We told ourselves, if we break this thing and get this done, then we will do whatever it takes to try and help our people. As Africans we need to take it upon ourselves and do it.
“Africans can live with the least of things in life and still be happy. They can go through a lot and still keep a smile on their faces. The world needs to understand that we go through things but it is not the end. We are lucky enough to be role models, icons, like Nelson Mandela. We want to give hope to the world and uplift people’s spirits. People need good spirit.”