Jason Carter doesn’t do the usual festival circuit – his is a more outlandish tour itinerary, as Ed Stocker finds out.
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Jason Carter is a born storyteller. When he’s not reminiscing about playing folk music with Bahraini pearl divers, he’s chuckling at the pin-drop silence in a North Korean mausoleum as he struggled with trapped wind. Not conventional stories perhaps but then Jason Carter is no conventional musician.
Largely self-taught, the Finland-based British guitarist has spent the last 14 years hot-footing his way around some of the more politically sensitive places on the globe. Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran aren’t top of most tour itineraries, but these are places Carter thrives on.
In April he visited North Korea for the first time and in October will travel to Iran – countries George Bush dubbed part of the ‘axis of evil’ in 2002. The thirst to learn more about people and cultures is evident as he enthuses about the characters he’s met along the way. “I’m a very curious person,” he says excitedly, adding: “Whether you play in London or North Korea, the same thing happens – you build bridges.”
Except when he performed at North Korea’s 25th ‘Peace, Harmony & Friendship’ festival, building bridges and making connections proved difficult. He was denied the chance to collaborate with local musicians, a minder posted outside his dressing room accompanied him everywhere and his festival repertoire had to pass the scrutiny of state censors. A burst of fiery flamenco guitar was met with “haven’t you got anything more optimistic?” from a deadpan official and he remains convinced the festival compère changed the name of his song, ‘The Colour of Silence’, to make it sound more upbeat.
You get the feeling this is part of the fun for Carter; a minor inconvenience overshadowed by the great adventure he’s on. Admitting the event was “more like a propaganda festival,” he remains determined to see the positives, laughing at the minder who’d scream his name when he managed to sneak out of the concert hall to meet people.
Sheer persistence meant Carter was allowed to attend celebrations for Kim Il-Sung’s birthday in Liberation Square. There, 5,000 revellers danced and sang songs to their ‘eternal president’ – a model of choreographed Communist conformity. Carter, clearly moved, recalls how a woman came out from the crowd and pulled him into the dancing: “The equality of everyone was unique. It was a very beautiful experience.”
But how does he feel colluding with regimes that have questionable democratic and human rights records? “I believe that every foreigner who steps foot inside North Korea makes a difference,” he parries. Going is better than not going at all, he seems to mean.
Carter is honest enough to see the irony in what he does. Speaking about Saudi Arabia, which he’s visited six times, he admits: “It’s questionable [what I do there] because I’m playing predominantly for oil-rich Westerners and Saudis.” Yet he has a unique perspective on a country that few Western musicians visit, where public performances are illegal and music takes place in the privacy of people’s homes. As well as the gigs he’s played at the British Embassy, he’s also got to know a bunch of Saudi “hippies” who attended his first gig there: “I use this term loosely,” he embellishes. “They have long hair, listen to good music, play guitar and smoke if there’s a chance.”

He recalls parties and jam sessions he’s been to and a “highly illegal” concert held on Friday, the holy day, in a friend’s antique shop. For him this is the essence of what’s he’s about – collaborating with normal people and the mutual exchange each gets from playing with an ‘outsider’. The Saudis would normally have to go as far as Bahrain or Dubai for these opportunities. His travels haven’t always been gratefully received and the recent chaos in Iraq has mobilised much public opinion against the West. Since the war he’s been cross-examined about his political views by a Bahraini festival organiser and received a frosty reception in a hotel bar in Brunei. “I have a British passport,” Carter says, “which is unfortunate sometimes.” These minor skirmishes have done nothing to dampen Carter’s spirit.Despite working closely with embassies and the British Council, he’s still very much his own person, referring to himself as “a world citizen without religious, social or ethnic borders.” For now, the guitarist prefers to dodge the political questions and stick to what he does best – making music and meeting people. “I’m just a guy with a guitar,” he shrugs