Jason Carter: Part 2 – Playing for Presidents and Headhunters

Jason CarterPart 2: playing for children who cannot speak, headhunters in Borneo and President Musharraf; censorship in Brunei; and how he makes a living.

Carter has had a remarkable journey – musically and literally – from his Devon youth to the more exotic and remote parts of the world. Aged nine, he began playing classical guitar and within two years the self-taught musician had told his father that he wanted to be a professional guitarist. It took a while to set the dream in motion and now he has become the first Westerner to play their own music in North Korea. “In my small town of Porpoint, everyone knew me and it was a very safe place. I was in the middle of an engineering apprenticeship with Plymouth Precision Engineering in Devon, and one day I looked around the factory and realised that if I didn’t leave soon I would be there forever.”

He headed for London for the first time and found it a “great shock”. He spent five years in odd jobs, trying to find his feet until Noel Treddinnick (of All Souls, Langham Place, where he toured with the All Souls Orchestra) encouraged him to answer an advert in The Stage to play guitar at the Hilton, Dubai.

“I got a feeling for the Gulf, and in those days Dubai wa a parochial town, not a metropolis. like it is now. There were still camels running in the city centre and eating out of your dustbin. Everyone was very friendly and it was very cosy.”

From there, the whole world opened up and he threw himself into it. One of his tour lists  has venues as remarkably disparate as Tehran, Whitby, Toronto, Congo, Finland, Siberia and the Bahamas. Whitby has never been in more exotic company.

Carter thinks that his curiosity leads him to adventurous places. “I’m a very curious person. I have been to jungles in Borneo, for instance, and I’ve played little concerts for a tribe there. For me that’s an ultimate cultural experience and the challenge is: here I am, a western musician; how can I relate to these people? That’s the bottom line – can I and how can I?

“For me the most important thing always is the connection with people. When you play for people like Musharraf [ex-President of Pakistan], they generally have very little time to communicate with you. It’s very polite, but you don’t actually get to know them at all. But when you go to the jungle or the mountains of Uzbekistan, or these remote places, people want to connect with you and they have time to. That’s much more valid and important.

“I remember playing for a bunch of kids in a children’s home on the border of Latvia and Estonia. That sticks in my memory as one of the most profound concerts I’ve ever played, because I played to a bunch of kids that couldn’t even speak – and if they could speak, couldn’t speak English.

“Yet after the concert, the nurses said that’s the quietest they’ve ever been for a long period of time. And for me that says a lot. This kind of experience sticks in my mind and reminds me why I am a musician. It’s very nice to play for important people, but it’s about a connection and making a difference. That’s why I am a musician in the first place. If that’s what it does, then it makes me feel good as a person.”

Do you want to listen to these pieces or not?

At the other end of the interest spectrum sit officials in places like North Korea and Brunei, where Carter has had to endure morning censorship panels a couple of times.

“The last thing I want to do is play guitar in the morning in my concert clothes after I’ve been travelling a lot.

“In 2005, I gave [the North Korean officials] the concert set list. They said, ‘Can you play this piece?’ I started playing and they started talking in the middle, so I stopped playing. I said, ‘Excuse me, do you want to listen to these pieces or not? I’m not wasting my energy if you’re not going to listen.’ ‘Oh, yes, sorry, Mr Carter, start again’. So I’d start again and they’d start talking. So I’d stop playing. They said, ‘Why have you stopped playing?’ ‘Because you started talking. It’s so annoying. If you want to hear if there’s anything anti-Islamic or anti-your government in them, you’ve got to listen.’

“Of course, the other thing is there are no lyrics in my music – I’m a guitarist; there are no words. So what I have to generally do is give a list of anything slightly profound or bizarre to them, they ask me any questions, but instrumental guitar doesn’t give away anything, of course.” Jason Carter playing harp guitar

It is one thing to travel the world, but it is another to make a living from it. Carter could not support himself from concerts in his homelands (he has lived in Finland and now resides in France).

“There’s enough audience, but not enough opportunities, ” he explained. “I work for The British Council once every year, once every two years, but it depends on the country and the budget. The budget can be reasonable or it can be rubbish. So for the North Korea trip I paid my own ticket to Pyongyang, because the British government didn’t want to pay for it and the North Korean government couldn’t pay for it. In fact, in the end I got the Finnish government to pay for it. But I was prepared to pay my own ticket to Beijing, because I really wanted to go and there was no fee. I needed that experience. I was so curious, I wanted to find out what’s really there.

“The Middle East concerts pay well for me and I need them every year. I love them. The audience is great and I feel a connection with my style of music, which has developed with Arabic and Asian influences over the years. The Middle East and Singapore are the big gigs for me in terms of earning money. The rest of the year I do things sometimes for free – because just because someone can’t pay for a concert doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have music. Otherwise it’s just mediocre or reasonable fees. But I definitely couldn’t provide without the well-paid gigs in the Middle East.”

One of his most unusual concert venues must be playing for a tribe of head-hunters, after a request via the Brunei Concert committee. “I was taken to the jungle with a translator and we headed on a boat through crocodile infested waters to give a short concert for a tribe living on a small island. They greeted us in tribal dress and after the concert fed us lizard meat on banana leaves…”

I had to askwhat that tastes like… “At a restaurant in Dubai once I had crocodile or alligator. It tastes like very strong tuna fish, but more fleshy, more like meat. That was almost exactly the same taste I remember, and actually very nice, very delicious.”

He continued, “At that moment I was wondering if my old workmates at Plymouth Precision Engineering would ever believe me, if I told them…”

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