North Korea: Jason Carter – ‘The Colour Of Silence’

24 April 2007
 Excerpts from Jason Carter’s diary, ‘The Colour Of Silence In The Axis Of Evil’

Jason Carter is a British guitarist who has travelled and toured in more than 70 countries. This is his personal account of his first performance in North Korea – as the second person from the UK ever to perform there. Though his music is entirely instrumental, he first had to be screened by a censorship committee. Jason Carter describes the incident in detail in his diary:

“We arrived at the National Theatre and met with the director. He asked me which pieces I had prepared for the festival so I told him that I am flexible and it would depend on how long the program was and what other music would be performed the same evening, then I would choose. He wanted something lively. He said that I should go immediately to the stage and play a couple of pieces, talk about the meanings of the pieces and then HE would choose. Fair enough I thought. So I went to the stage, which was well equipped and such a beautiful auditorium. I tuned my guitar and introduced the first piece ‘Shamal’. I told the story of the desert winds on the Island of Bahrain and the journey of Flamenco from Arabic music. I played the piece and waited for a response. They talked frantically iNorth Korean and asked me to play the second piece. So I chose ‘The Colour of Silence’. Told the story of the silence in the desert and in Finland and continued to play.

After I finished I waited for the verdict. Yun Mi, after a long discussion with the ‘panel’, asked if I had anything more lively. And funnily enough, the director had disappeared and had been replaced by a much older looking man with glasses. More lively? The only thing I thought would liven these pieces would be if I ritually burned my guitar on stage after the performance, which I did not want to do. “This is as lively as it gets” I replied. After more discussion the translator said, “What they mean is, do you have anything more optimistic?”. I suddenly realised that this was a censorship session, to check that what I played would be suitable for the North Korean people. And they wanted me to play ‘happy’ music. “Can you play something more Classical?” they said. “Yes I can but its not very optimistic music, and in my opinion, the ‘Colour of Silence’ is very optimistic, in fact the most optimistic piece I have, so its up to you, either some sad and melancholic Bach, or optimistic ‘Colour of Silence’.”

I walked up and down the stage, wondering would they allow me to play at all. After a few minutes I went to the middle of the auditorium and joined them. I introduced myself to the man with glasses and he was in fact a very warm and sincere man. I presumed that they were deep in discussion about what I should be allowed to play. “It is an honour to be in your country and to take part in this festival, and to share music and friendship with the Korean people” I said, grinning from ear to ear. Via Yun Mi he said “You play beautifully and we are honoured to have you here, and we think that you can play the ‘Colour of Silence’, it is very nice”. A sense of relief followed, although I am sure that the Korean announcement would be something like “We would like to introduce British guitarist Jason Carter, playing his own composition ‘Freedom and Independence, Peace and Friendship’. I was also instructed not to speak to the audience.

I strolled back to the hotel with Yun Mi, and she explained that maybe the North Korean people might not understand my music. I told her that I had played for a group of severely mentally and physically disabled children in Estonia, one of whom cried for the first time in 10 years during the ‘Colour of Silence’, so if THEY could understand my music, surely the North Korean people would. But maybe that was the reason after all, that they SHOULDN’T be affected by my music. And maybe the reference to the disabled children was inappropriate, and I apologised, but she had understood my point. “Maybe the North Korean people are not ready for your music” she replied. Feeling a little insulted I said, “So what I am I doing here then? I sent a CD with all my own compositions on, and a DVD with all my own pieces on, what did you expect? This is an International Arts Festival isn’t it?” This whole conversation took place in a very polite and friendly fashion, and before we parted for lunch, we laughed at the situation at hand, because of course none of this was her fault, nor mine. So who had in fact listened to my music and invited me I wondered?


Whilst I was waiting backstage there were many posters advertising the festival. The posters said in English ‘Let Us Sing Loudly The Song Of Independence, Peace and Friendship’. I felt like changing the words with a big black marker for ‘‘Let Us Sing Loudly The Song Of Propaganda And Oppression’. I was very bored and got fed up with (my official “guide”) John following me everywhere, so I remained in the dressing room most of the time, taking bizarre photos in the dressing room three-way mirror. No wonder John was nervous about me. He remained outside the dressing room but kept coming in at intervals, I think to see if I had gone insane or not.

The live performance

There were around 1500 people in the theatre, it was completely full. I greeted them in Korean, which they loved; I took a graceful bow and sat down to start ‘The Colour Of Silence’. The piece starts with only the left hand, ‘hammering’, which gives a gentle but firm sound. I heard whispering in the audience. I imagined comments like ‘this boy is possessed’, or ‘can he not play the guitar properly’. My right hand joined in and the audience began to relax. I saw the Orchestra in the pit smiling at me.

The piece lasts around 6 minutes with a few unconventional techniques, and when I started the double handed ‘hammering’ on the neck, I heard mutters and whispers of ‘ooooh’ and ahhhhh’. I drew the piece to a close and finished triumphantly, as they seemed to like that kind of ending. I finished by waving the guitar close to the microphone which produced a kind of ‘wah wah’ effect and the orchestra seemed to like that.

The audience clapped enthusiastically and I walked towards the front of the stage and took the final bow, wondering what was going through their minds. Everybody looked the same, dressed the same, and acting the same. They even smiled and clapped the same. I must have looked like someone from another planet to them. These were the same people who, when their Dear Leader tested his Nuclear Missiles last October, crammed the streets in praise of Kim Jong Ill and the Fatherland, North Korea, the saviour of the planet. Tens of thousands of people danced in the streets after the announcement that afternoon. I wanted to tell them that this was the reason I was here, and maybe they would like that. But it wouldn’t sound quite right. But these people were beginning to get under my skin, with their kindness, peaceful ways of being and gentleness. I loved their way of being and felt very comfortable. Far from what I expected. And the fact that I could not check email or use my mobile phone made into a bit of a holiday. A holiday in the ‘axis of evil’.

In he dressing room after my performance journalists piled into my dressing room, fascinated by the meaning of my piece ‘The Colour Of The Wind’ (!) and my impressions of North Korea. I told them that it was an honour to in their country and to perform for the North Korean people. They liked that. After they left, Jun Mi again challenged me to play something more lively and ‘technical’. I explained that this was supposed to be an Arts Festival, and mentioned that if Britain had invited foreign artists from North Korea to perform, then the organisers and audience would not question the content of what was presented. We again laughed at the situation, although she was doing her best to persuade me to play something more ‘acceptable’ in meaning to the North Korean audience.

Jason Carter lateron received a silver trophy and an ‘honorary diploma’ for his performance in North Korea.

  Could he be arrested for playing ‘non-happy music’?, he wondered. Guitarist Jason Carter travelled 5,000 miles to play his guitar composition ‘The Colour Of Silence’ three times for a total of 5,000 North Korean people.
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Jason Carter: ‘The Colour Of Silence In The Axis Of Evil’
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