Jason Carter Touring the 'Axis
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
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
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
“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
“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.