Jason Carter: Part 1 – Touring the ‘Axis of Evil’

While travelling through 90 countries, guitarist Jason Carter has had the sort of adventures that you expect from fictional heroes.

He has shared stages with Nigel Kennedy, Phil Keaggy, Gordon Giltrap and Clannad’s Moya Brennan and performed for such luminaries as Dustin Hoffman and Pakistan’s President Musharraf. So far, so typical top travelling musician.

But more unusual highlights of his working life are using Bach to placate gun-toting soldiers in Uzbekistan, playing for head hunters in Borneo and embarking on a tour of nations that make up George Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of Evil’.

“We are told that the world is a dangerous place,” Carter told me, “but if we choose to step outside of the box for a moment, we can see that there is another side to this fascinating world that is in need of healing and reconciliation. This is the world that I am not only dedicated to, but addicted to.”

“The tour wasn’t intentional; it just came together naturally with my contacts through the British Embassies in the area,” he explained.

Because he doubted the constantly negative press about the country, the first stop was North Korea. Despite living in Finland and being in Singapore when the Koreans contacted him, they insisted on a face-to-face meeting in London.

“The North Korean embassy is a semi-detached house in Ealing. I walked in and there were these proud photographs of them testing their nuclear missiles and Kim Il-Sung meeting all these world leaders – well, a few world leaders like Robert Mugabe and Yasser Arafat!”

His route in was an annual arts festival. He later found that he was the first westerner to play his own music there. Many Koreans, used only to military and optimistic music, found his music’s more melancholic moments difficult.

“They warmed up,” he added. “My translator and guide would tell me that there were young people that loved my guitar playing, that they’d never heard anyone playing like that.”

Had Carter been less assertive, he may have travelled 5,000 miles there and not been able to perform his own work.

He recalled how he felt like he was being used for propaganda purposes. He asked his hosts, “’If this is not an arts festival, what is it? All you’re doing is filming us visiting your shrines and your statues, showing your people in the countryside that all these foreigners are supporting your government, but you won’t let me play my own pieces!’ At that moment I lost my temper and said,’You’re not filming me any more.’”

Too much close scrutiny also fed his frustration. Carter was desperate to meet Koreans first-hand in ordinary situations, such as shopping or on a tram – something he only managed to do when he could stop his minder from grabbing his arm and “escape” from the hotel.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m too rebellious”

“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m too rebellious,” he stressed, “because I’m also very culturally sensitive when I’m travelling.”  But his assertiveness was well advised and in the end he found  “a great rapport” with his translator and guide.

Despite the close minding, Carter enjoyed his experience. “I was lucky to have two very good times. One was the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of North Korea. I was invited (after a lot of persuasion and hassling of my guide) to a huge dance of 5,000 North Koreans in Liberation Square, where they donned national costumes and sang these folk songs. It was magical. All I saw was the British ambassador, the BBC, a handful of other foreigners and the rest were all Koreans. Brilliant!

“So if you want to do anything in North Korea you really have to really hassle them, really hammer them, remind them every ten minutes. They often say just ‘No’ and don’t give any answers, because that’s just the way the system works. You can’t crash the system.  As westerners, we are used to asking for reasons, and asking, ‘Why not?’  or ‘Why?’, whereas in their society, they just say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and there’s no reason. There was a chain of command of people and that’s what I forgot to realise while I was there.

“I thought that Pyongyang was one of the safest, quietest cities I’ve been to in my life. The people were some of the kindest, calm and non-aggressive I’ve ever met in my life; and I didn’t see one gun in the eleven days that I was there. So my impression of North Korea was very positive. For me to perform to 5,000 North Koreans three nights in a row was a great experience.”

Jason Carter playing Harp guitar at nationalCarter seems able to break through any cultural and language barriers. I wondered which is more of a passport for him: his guitar or his friendly nature?

“That was the frustrating thing for me in North Korea because I am a very open-minded person and I love to connect with all kinds of people, especially in a place where the culture is extremely opposite to mine in terms of our choices. I desperately wanted to meet people on the street and not necessarily talk to them, just hang around with them and see what they’re like and that was almost impossible. That’s why I became very angry.

“Music always opens the doors – especially non-verbal music, which is what I do. So it is partly music, but also my curiosity, openness and hopefully willingness to listen and communicate with people.

“Maybe the reason I am drawn to ‘building bridges’ is inspired by my faith,” he mused. “ I went to church from a young age and somehow it made sense to me, even as a very young boy. A creator of the universe and yet a God who one could somehow have personal contact with. It affects my work deeply as my faith is the core of who I am.”

One example of his peacemaking took place well after midnight “in the middle of nowhere” in Uzbekistan, near the Afghanistan border, with a village council translator and a driver.

“Generally every couple of hours you’re paying bribes to policemen or border guards, Even towns have borders because you’re not allowed to drive anywhere in Uzbekistan without permission and there’s always roadblocks and the police are always saying you’re speeding when you weren’t. You always have to pay a bribe. You’re talking about 20 or 50p, but to them it’s a lot of money.

“In this particular situation, there’s not just police but also soldiers. As a westerner, you feel a little bit threatened by the presence of weapons. Generally speaking, it’s a very safe situation, unless you’re being stupid. For the first few days I remember feeling threatened and uncomfortable at these check points, but after I became quite used to it and it became quite normal.

“This particular night the driver’s licence got taken away at this checkpoint and these two guys went into the booth (a Portakabin) to check his details and never came out. The driver went in and never came out. I remember looking at my translator. We were quite tired and we had still quite a way to drive. So we got together and went into this place and the soldiers were being awkward about bribes. He’s already paid them something, but that didn’t seem to be enough.

“They were asking about me and he tried to explain I was a guitarist and working for the British Government and we were on a tour. They were joking about it, so I went to the car, got out my  guitar and said, ‘Listen, this is what I’m doing’. I remember thinking I should play Bach because this particular piece was simple and it might create a calm atmosphere and maybe make a difference. So I did that.

“The atmosphere changed immediately. One of them went up to me and said, ‘Ah, you like David Beckham?’ (I hate football) and I said, ‘Yes! He’s one of my favourite players!’. That made a connection.

“I don’t think the music made a difference, but the fact that I played guitar for them, just spontaneously, and appeared to be friendly made them relax and we were allowed to leave.”

His release The Helsinki Project reflects his life, with guests from the Middle East, North Korea, India, Finland, Senegal and the UK, each adding textures to the disc that make it truly world music, fusing genres as well as cultures. He even agreed the record deal on the phone in the Sahara.

While his own guitar playing is classical with strong flamenco tendencies, The Helsinki Project is also sprinkled with jazz. Overall it feels Balearic and reflects both the sandy plains of the Middle East and the calmness of Finland, where he lived at the time.

Its closing piece is the gorgeously peaceful Kaamos, which depicts an Arctic moment.

“Kaamos is the middle of winter. Around 3pm you get this amazing layer of light across the sky as it’s getting dark. At the horizon it can still be a little bit dark blue, then a bit orange, maybe a bit grey, then above that black, and all shades of colours in between. The Kaamos is this moment when it is completely still, very dark and completely silent.”

“The artist is a dangerous, dangerous man”

But not all is quiet and easy on the disc. One track, Prelude No.1,  picks up both travelling through the axis of evil and the border incident. It is a Bach piece into which he has inserted a sample of George W. Bush saying, “The artist is a dangerous, dangerous man”.

I imagined that his face lit up when he found that sample, but I was wrong.

“It didn’t, because I didn’t find it, I made it up! That’s been a bit contentious. What George Bush said was, ‘Saddam Hussein is a dangerous, dangerous man with dangerous, dangerous weapons’. I stuck that in the track first of all with all the other ones and I thought, ‘What’s the point of putting that in the track?’ So I went back to the web site and I found just the two words ‘the artist’. So I thought I’ll just chuck that in. So I, with my music programme, dropped out ‘Saddam Hussein’ and put in ‘the artist’. Yeah! This I like!”

It was Carter’s on-the-ground experience that made him so happy about it.

“I was in Saudi Arabia the day Bush gave his ‘axis of evil’ speech and I saw on TV thousands of people demonstrating in Iran. Clinton did great things in terms of gently opening up North Korea with sending Madeline Albright there. Then, hey presto, Mr Bush closed that door of diplomacy with one ‘simple’ speech.”

Coming in Part 2: playing for President Musharraf and for headhunters in Borneo; censorship in Brunei;masterclasses with John Williams and how he makes a living.


Helsinki Project review: http://www.tollbooth.org/2007/reviews/jcarter.html

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