BEIRUT/AMMAN: In 1999, the five members of Unknown to No One were actually unknown to everyone. Forming a boy band in Baghdad to sing pop songs in English, they were at best a shot in the dark. No one in Iraq was listening to the Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls then, and the masses weren't likely to be sympathetic to homegrown harmonizing in a language more often associated with deadening economic sanctions than with sugar-coated music that was barred from entering the country anyway.
Four years later, when the war broke out in Iraq, the boys had an eight-track album on their hands and a captive audience of shock-and-awed foreign journalists all desperate for a feel-good feature. Suddenly, the band became the best story coming out of a bad situation that was rapidly deteriorating from US-led invasion to disastrous occupation and devastating civil war.
Another four years later, with a roller-coaster ride in between, and Unknown to No One, shorthanded to UTN1, has been split up, scattered around the region and reunited in Lebanon.
On Monday, the band's first single, "While We Can," is set for release on local radio stations. By the end of the month, a video clip for the same track will be making the rounds on television. By the end of the year, UTN1 will be launching a second single - the first in Arabic and perhaps the most accomplished pop song in the band's oeuvre to date - along with a forthcoming EP.
LCI Entertainment, the newly created multimedia company that is backing the band's efforts, is positioning UTN1 to capture Arab and American audiences at once. The two-tiered attack represents both a far-fetched dream and a fall-back option. It also suggests that this may be UTN1's last chance. Nearly a decade has passed since five friends started arranging songs on a crappy Casio 310 keyboard and learning to harmonize while driving around in a crammed Volkswagen Passat. A few of them are pushing 30. At least one of them has gone dramatically grey.
The past few years have been rough on the band members. They've been shuttled around from Iraq to Jordan, the United Kingdom and back again. They came to Lebanon just as Israel began its month-long bombing campaign last summer.
"The war followed us," says Akhlad glumly. Now 26, he plays the jozza, a stringed instrument that gives UTN1's music an Arabic touch. Securing visas and work permits has been a problem for them everywhere. And for more than three months this year, they were split up and strewn across the region, their movements replicating those of the Iraqi refugee population at large.
Hassan, 23, is the only one who has returned to Iraq - for three harrowing days after his father passed away. Shant, 28, and Art, 29, ended up in Armenia for months, if for no other reason than Yerevan welcoming them as young men of Armenian descent. But none had it worse than Nadeem, 24, who got stranded in Jordan over the summer - totally illegal and unable to do much more than sit around and be fearful of checkpoints.
"I honestly don't know what I'll do if this doesn't work out," he said in Amman a few months ago, in reference to UTN1's uncertain future. "I was 18 when I joined the band. Now I'm 24 going on 25. Before, you could afford to waste time. Now, your days are passing and your years are passing. It's not like I have a very good resume."
Still, you can picture it all so clearly: Nadeem, the singer, is moody and mysterious. Hassan, the guitarist, is tall and handsome with a killer smile. Shant, the drummer, is articulate and mature. Art, the mastermind behind the music, is the shy one. Akhlad, meanwhile, is the cute one and the funny one. You can imagine the flocks of young female fans, each picking their favorite, putting up posters in their bedrooms and singing along with stars in their eyes to the smooth and - these being stock pop songs after all - occasionally inane lyrics.
"We are sure we will make people love us," says Shant. "Each of us has an image, a character. We studied this with a stage coach." Now the band has to prove itself. "Can we make people dance?" he asks. "Can we make them listen to our music in their cars?"
"We have been around the world now and we know the music industry is very competitive," says Art. "There are so many people out there with multiple talents. When I see Beyonce I say to myself: What the hell? She's a goddess. What can we do? But I've also learned that we don't have to compare ourselves to the others. We just have to do our work, with love, give people the music and let them judge."
Art, in effect, orchestrated the band into existence in the late 1990s. He and Shant were neighbors growing up. They heard Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album and decided that was where it was at. They wrote a few songs and got some airplay on Iraq's Voice of Youth FM, a radio station owned by Saddam Hussein's son Uday. They tagged an advertisement for three more band members onto the ends of the songs.
Hassan and Akhlad, meanwhile, were cousins and close friends harboring their own dreams of fame. They heard the ads and responded. Art arranged a meeting at a record shop.
"Art was this quiet guy," recalls Hassan. "But he was really a composer. It wasn't a hobby for him. Then Shant arrived and he was like someone straight out of 'The Godfather.' He walked in with his sunglasses and we were like, 'Oh my God, who is this guy?" Soon after, Nadeem, a childhood friend of Hassan's, returned to Iraq from the UK and completed the lineup.
The chemistry, recalls Art, was immediate. "We knew we were meant for each other. We were more than brothers."
Programmers at Voice of Youth told the band to record a song for Saddam Hussein's birthday. It'll be a door opener, they said. And in a weird way it was. The station played the birthday song twice an hour, every hour, for a week. Then the band recorded a love song called "Fancy Girl." The station played it once and dropped it.
Undaunted, the band brought a tape of the song to the only record shop in Baghdad that stocked Western music. The owner, Alan Enwia, liked what he heard and agreed to finance an album. "From Now On" sold 2,000 copies in 2002. Enwia sent a copy to the UK-based talent scout Peter Whitehead, who worked with Radiohead and the Stereophonics. Whitehead, too, liked what he heard and started to make noise about bringing the group to London.
Foreign journalists arriving ahead of the invasion flocked to Hassan's house. When they published stories about the band abroad, the intelligence services paid his parents a visit and terrified everyone. Then the war began. Enwia was kidnapped and killed. There were no more copies of the album and the original masters went missing.
UTN1 started to fall apart. Akhlad went to Sweden and was briefly replaced. Hassan decided to try his luck with "Star Academy." Shant got a job with a company that had been subcontracted by an American businessman working in Iraq.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage the band, Shant gave a CD of their music to the businessmen. A few years down the road, he is the majority shareholder in LCI Entertainment.
Now, after a white-knuckle wait on their work permits, the band is both reunited and legitimately residing in Beirut. "We are really eager for this moment," says Shant.
"We are tired of being the best story coming out of Baghdad," adds Nadeem.
"We want the music to play the main part in our story now," concludes Art.
For more information on Unknown to No One, please check out www.utn1.com