Unkown To No One, or, as they are more commonly called, UTN1, is considered the pioneer pop band of Iraq. Having begun in 1999 during the reign of Saddam Hussein they dared to form a pop band at a time when Iraq was dominated by traditional music. UTN1 began as the creative project of band members Art (Artin) and Shant, who later recruited three more members – Hassan, Akhlad, and Nadeem (who left the group in 2009). Completely self funded, they scraped together the money to record their first album in 2000. The band can still recall a time when they had only one instrument – a keyboard, which they used to compose songs together out of their Volkswagen Passat, which doubled as their original practice space.
Although they garnered a strong local following, they lacked professional support for the first few years. In 2002, as a result, in part, of the increasing international focus on Iraq, they were offered contracts by British producers. Unfortunately, politics and international events would prevent them from traveling to the United Kingdom for several more years. It wasn’t until 2004 that they were able to sign with a record label that could really open doors for them.
The band has now released three albums, several music videos (like the one below), and successfully toured in multiple countries. UTN1 recently completed a tour of the US that took them all over the country, including California, Arizona, New York, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Although UTN1 refers to themselves as a pop band, the prominent use of the piano–once the only instrument they had access to–gives this band a slightly more classical sound. Their repertoire also includes the occasional heavy guitar riff, lending a more alternative/rock sound (I’m thinking specifically of “Tet-thakkarine,” from their 2010 album of the same name).
Part of the impetus for the band’s creative force is the idea that music can bridge cultures, that is why they continue to perform in both English and Arabic (including multiple dialects). Their music inevitably has been inspired by the state of Iraq during the war. Their song “While We Can,” sung in English, was written after their return to Iraqi in 2007, at which point they were shocked to discover the extent of the damage that the war had brought on. “While We Can” describes the never ending fear of living in the midst of violence, but at the same time the hope of a better life and a brighter future for Iraq.
On January 25th, UTN1 will be performing at an event hosted by the US Institute of Peace: Next Generation of Peace Building and Social Change in the Arab World. The event will include three young cultural activists who will speak on social change in the Arab world and will feature an exclusive screening of the first episode of the new season of Salam Shabab, Iraq’s first peacebuilding reality television show, sharing the stories of Iraq’s youth.