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Jason Carter  Touring the 'Axis of Evil'
by Derek Walker 

If declaring an 'Axis of Evil' was intended to isolate the countries involved, nobody told guitarist Jason Carter. He has returned from North Korea and has already planned his visits to Afghanistan and Iran.
 
For him, “the tour wasn't intentional,” but part of an approach to life that sees him naturally building bridges across cultures, both with an eclectic musicality and a natural way with friendships. 
 
Having visited over 70 countries, he has learned that people are similar across the globe and writes in the liner to his latest CD The Helsinki Project  (see review) that he is constantly humbled by the grace and friendships  that he has experienced in his travels. 
 
“We are told that the world is a dangerous place,” he comments, “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.”
 
This four-year labour of love brings out both the musical and personal globalism that runs through Carter's blood (he even negotiated the recording contract while driving through the desert). There are only two other names on the musicians credits that sound at all English. One is former Iona saxophonist Mike Haughton, who contributes to two tracks; the other is George Bush, credited with 'speeches'.
 
Carter's version of Bach's Prelude no.1 contains samples of Bush's words alongside a Muslim devotional song, raising a question with subtlety and without inflammatory lyrics.
 
Since the Dixie Chicks took the initial flak for living out America's claim to free speech, it has almost become _de rigeur_ for any self-respecting musician to put out at least a song or two protesting at the invasion of Iraq. The difference with Carter is that he is seeing the situation from the viewpoint of friends right across the Middle East.                                             
 
“I was in Saudi Arabia the day Bush gave his ‘axis of evil’ speech,” he recalls. ”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.”
 
His answer is to fight speech with speech as the President claims, “I believe in tolerance. Every soul is equal and valued. When I speak you will know my heart”. But the quote that bookends the track is a mischievously adapted one about Saddam Hussein. Here Bush now appears to admit,“_The artist_ is a dangerous, dangerous man with dangerous, dangerous weapons”.
 
Carter's experience of visiting North Korea was a mixture of frustration and thrills. The irritation came from having to wade through constant restrictions. “I went in a very large delegation of foreigners, which only happens once a year, very restricted and closely followed everywhere. You can't meet normal people. Well actually you can, but it's not very easy. You've got to really give the guys translating a hard time.”
 
It took as much persistence to meet ordinary children in a park opposite the hotel as it did to see a celebration of Kim Ung-u's birthday in Liberation Square, where 5,000 Koreans in national dress performed dances and folk songs.
 
“If you want to do anything in North Korea you really have to 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.  As westerners, we are used to asking for reasons, whereas in their society, they just say, 'Yes' or 'No' and there is no reason. There was a chain of command of people and that's what I forgot to realise while I was there.” 
 
While some might claim that he was being shown the best parts of the country for PR reasons and missing the reality, Carter was clearly impressed:  “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; and I didn't see one gun the eleven days that I was there.”  
 
Apart from dogged determination to explore, his reason for being in the country was to perform. This is where he turned the tables and gave the Koreans a hurdle.
 
“I didn't realize it at the time, but they told me afterwards that I was the first westerner to ever play their own music. That was very difficult for them, because all the music they have is generally very military style or very optimistic. My music is not sad, but on the melancholic side occasionally and they didn't know what to do with it.” 
 
In Carter's eyes, that challenge is a good thing and one that he thrives on. “I think that any foreigner that sets foot in North Korea, regardless of who you are or what you do, makes a difference, because no one comes into contact with anybody from outside the country.”
 
His  journeying started in the rural outposts of England's south-west corner, where, halfway through an engineering apprenticeship, the prospect of missing out on life rose like a ghost in front of him. He knew that he needed  to take decisive action.
 
“In my small town of Porpoint, everyone knew me and it was a very safe place. Then suddenly I went to London, where I'd never been in my life. It was a huge shock and it took me a couple of years to find my feet.”
 
Answering an advert in The Stage led to a job at the Dubai Hilton, where he first earned a living from music alone. Although the job was boring enough to send him into his own little world, he found that it was a “great experience” to be living in the Middle East. 
 
“I got a feeling for the Gulf and in those days Dubai was 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.”
 
Travelling came easy once he had reached so far abroad. Time in India led to session work with CBS and an album of his own. But still he feared creative atrophy and, ironically, it was back in the British Isles that he found his sense of mission.
 
“I think Ireland was the first place I really managed to do some full-length solo concerts and that was really good for me. In Northern Ireland there was also conflict and I saw in those days that music is something which can build bridges. It doesn't matter where you play concerts, whether a middle class countryside church or Iraq: when you play a concert you're bringing people together.” 
 
Carter's Christian faith is a motivation for his bridge-building work. He explains that this “faith is the core of who I am, it forms my view of the world and the meaning of life”. 
 
It also explains why people are so important to him, whatever their social rank. Although he has played for President Musharraf and Dustin Hoffman, I suspected that these prestigious concerts were not his most satisfying.

“For me, the most important thing always is the connection with people,” he replied. “When you play for people like Musharraf in a position like that, they generally have very little time to communicate with you and 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, people want to connect with you and they have time to. That's much more valid and important.”

The jungle he spoke about was when he was invited to play in Borneo by the British Council - an organization that promotes the nation artistically. He accepted the invitation, but wanted to meet a local tribe, rather than just perform in a hall.

“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?”

The answers seem to be 'Yes” and “Effectively,” as he thrives on the contact. One of his favorite concerts was playing to children in a home,.They could not even speak, let alone speak English, yet they were particularly quietened by his music, according to the nurses.

Carter now lives in Finland when he is not travelling the globe. He estimates that he has played in 70 countries. However many lands there are left to visit, it is hard to imagine him being bored by the travel and while he is building bridges as he goes, he is doing the world a great service.

www.jasoncarter.net

 

 
 
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