In 1989, the Government of Algeria submitted to the journal of the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (IAML) what it termed a “somewhat difficult request.”
It concerned the country’s most fabled and lauded composer, Mohamed Iguerbouchène. By then he had been dead for almost a quarter of a century. Born in 1907 in Kabylia, a part of northern Algeria, Iguerbouchène had spent most of his life in France. In hundreds of musical compositions he’d blended regional themes and folk music with western influences, to create a very modern melodic fusion. He’d also collaborated with a plethora of Algerian, North African, and Cuban artists whose careers he helped advance.
The Algerian diplomatic request published in the IAML’s journal noted that Iguerbouchène’s life and work were to be celebrated with commemorative events organized by the municipal government of Algiers, but that the authorities were finding it “difficult to reconstruct the life of our artist, because certain stages of his life are still in the dark…The information we have is extremely vague. If you do not have any documents, then we ask you to give us a guide for our further research.”
No information of importance was forthcoming. As the Algerian writer Hamid Tahri expressed it: “Evoking his name and the work he left for posterity generally triggers a heartbroken shake of the head and eyes raised to the sky. And for good reason! Of Mohamed Iguerbouchène we know very little.”
In 1931, as he was embarking on his musical career, Iguerbouchène gave a series of interviews to the Algerian magazine L’Afrique du Nord Illustrée that have formed the foundation of his cultural myth.
He described his childhood as a shepherd boy in Kabylia, “this stirring landscape of vast biblical solitudes.” (The Kabyles are an ethnic subgroup of the Berber people.) Keen to improve their prospects, Iguerbouchène’s parents relocated to Algiers. The French colonial capital had a thriving musical culture, and there Iguerbouchène lived what he called “the most beautiful dream…I loved music. I will say more. I understood her. But I would never have dedicated my life to it, if I had not had the opportunity to meet on my way Mr. Bernard Ross.” In L’Afrique du Nord Illustrée, Iguerbouchène explained:
Mr. Ross was a Scottish seigneur who regularly came to Algeria every year to shelter his fragile old age from the cold and the northern mists… He noticed me during an audition given by the young natives of the English school which was then located in Algiers…Immediately, he took me under his tutelage.
Ross did more than that. With the agreement of Iguerbouchène’s parents, he took him back to England to study musicianship, and eventually bequeathed him the bulk of his fortune. Like a game of telephone or Chinese Whispers, Mr. Ross metamorphosed in later Algerian and French accounts into “a rich and powerful lord” who was variously called Lord Fraser Ross, Earl Ross, Count Ross—even Roth.
“The life of Iguerbouchène is a fairy tale,” one Algerian official told Tahri, the Algerian writer. “If you follow his path, you will be fixed on his exceptional destiny.” The truth of Iguerbouchène’s life has been garbled, embroidered, and whitewashed, both unintentionally and intentionally, including by Iguerbouchène himself. Several of the repeated biographical facts fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny. What follows is a necessary disentangling of the truth from that fairy tale. It’s a far more interesting—and more human—story. It all began with a hidden scandal.
Articles like this, straight to your inbox
In 2016, I stumbled upon a criminal case that had rocked the British Establishment at the turn of the century. It involved the procurement of youths for 30 members of the aristocracy.
The ringleader of the group was Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea, a philanthropic plutocrat known as “the most handsome man in Parliament,” who was married to heiress Constance de Rothschild. The British Government believed wholesale prosecution of the case would result in “a great national disgrace, and the pollution of the public mind.” It was therefore smothered: All those involved were secretly granted legal immunity, with the exception of two of the four procurers, who were quietly imprisoned on long sentences.
Intrigued by the bare skeleton of facts I’d come across, I began researching the story, and very soon its stranger-than-fiction aspects began to manifest. One procurer who’d absconded became a chamberlain to Pope Pius XI; a second used a false resumé to begin a career as a renowned headmaster and school-owner in Australia; a third had, after serving his sentence, purchased homes in Austria and Algeria. I also came across newspaper references to this particular gentleman’s will that left a fortune to an Arab protégé.
This protégé was Mohamed Iguerbouchène. His Scottish benefactor was Bernard Fraser Ross, who was not a laird, but rather, the pernickety son of a Scottish insurance heavyweight. In an earlier interview than the one already quoted, Iguerbouchène recalled, “One day—I had just reached my 15th birthday—a London family, to whom I am immensely grateful, proposed to take me to England.” This would make the year 1922.
Other Algerian accounts claim the fateful meeting occurred when Iguerbouchène was just 12. Iguerbouchène may well have ratcheted up his age for the interviewer to make a good impression, which would also account for his dissembling that his good fortune derived from Ross’s family, rather than from a pederastic bachelor who’d done jail time, including for attempted buggery.
All we know is what Iguerbouchène himself said: “I loved music. I will say more. I understood her. But I would never have dedicated my life to it, if I had not had the opportunity to meet on my way Mr. Bernard Ross.” Certainly, without infatuated patrons the history of the arts would be far shorter. And Iguerbouchène was to prove a prodigy.
Existing accounts of Iguerbouchène’s life state that in England he attended Norton College, and then went on to study at either the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, or one of the predecessors of the Royal Northern College of Music.
As I discovered, his name is absent from the records of those institutions, and a Norton College did not even then exist at the time. Had Iguerbouchène been placed in a school, it would have exposed Ross—with his notorious public profile and jail record—to questions over his relationship with the boy. Iguerbouchène’s later fibs over his education were clearly a deliberate cover story to blur the sticky truth: a gazelle-eyed Berber boy shacked up in London with a rich, predatory bachelor.
Private tutoring, particularly if the tutor or tutors were friends of Bernard’s, would have been the far safer option. Iguerbouchène was not only precocious, but something of a musical savant, making this approach easier. Iguerbouchène’s music teacher, whom he claimed was a friend of Ross’s, has so far also remained elusive in identification. My research pinpointed him as Alfred Livingstone Hirst: a bachelor church organist, choirmaster, and composer, whose works manifested bold and eclectic musical effects, a feature notable in Iguerbouchène’s own later compositions.
Iguerbouchène also later claimed to have studied in Vienna under the composers Alfred Grunfeld and Robert Fishof. This would have been difficult, given both gentlemen were in their graves by the time Iguerbouchène was of age to do so.
At his death in 1929, Ross bequeathed Iguerbouchène all his Algerian property, with a further £1,500 conditionally on his not marrying “a woman or girl of European birth whom I consider would only make him a bad wife and render him unhappy.” Iguerbouchène met Ross’s wishes half-way, marrying an Algerian-born French national, Louise Gomez.
Ross’s bequest enabled the Iguerbouchène to live a somewhat lotus-eating life. A journalist friend, Jean Berger-Buchy, recalled that “any desire for work overwhelmed him. The thought alone threw him into an unspeakable despondency. He immediately planned either a long trip to Vienna, or a few months of vacation, at home in Algiers.”
Yet as the years went on, Iguerbouchène became an intensely prolific artist. The free-flowing form of the rhapsody, suggestive of improvisation, and often inspired by regional themes and folk music, was tailored to his eclectic musical passions, and one he excelled at. Western classical music was also opening up to new global rhythms, including from America and Latin America, and possessed of an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge, he was influenced by them all.
The popularity of “Oriental cabarets” in Paris in the 1930s also led Iguerbouchène to become the co-proprietor of a bar-restaurant and cabaret, El Djazaïr (Algiers in Arabic), in the Latin Quarter. Operating a nightclub can be a precarious business, but a French police report claims that Iguerbouchène’s father, who was a partner in the venture, was so frustrated by his son’s extravagance that he sought to have him banned by the Algerian authorities.
El Djazaïr would showcase many of the stars of the Arab world. Its regular singer was Salim Halali, a pretty Algerian Jewish youth who was openly gay, and known as “the boy with a giant’s voice.” Iguerbouchène composed many songs for him, and his name appears on all the discs of Halali’s early recordings.
In 1937, Iguerbouchène’s work on musical scores for short films led to him being asked to provide Arabian-themed music for a French feature film set in Algiers, “Pépé Le Moko,” to supplement its Western score by Vincent Scotto. Writing in the magazine Modern Music, Paul Bowles claimed Iguerbouchène had saved the film score: “It is certainly due to him that we have the exquisite background for the streets of Algiers’ Casbah: a great brouhaha of native horns, Kabyle flutes and drums, together with sad lost wisps of bal musette tunes on the accordion…life in the Casbah is one long soundtrack like this.”
Iguerbouchène’s life during World War II is usually glossed over by Algerian writers, except to outlandishly claim that he was one of Hitler’s favorite musicians. However, as French police and intelligence files revealed to me, Iguerbouchène’s ties to the Nazi regime were deep. In the earliest days of the Occupation he was snuggled in the plush Paris comfort of the Hotel Lutetia, that had been requisitioned by the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Meanwhile, Salim Halali, who risked being deported to Auschwitz, was in hiding in Paris’s Grand Mosque, posing as a Muslim.
Iguerbouchène joined the Nazi propaganda effort targeting Muslim discontent, managing the musical direction for the regime’s radio broadcasts targeting North Africa. He also took up with a German-Belgian woman he met in Berlin, Iwane “Yvonne” Vom Dorp, with whom he went on to have five illegitimate children—Gomez, his existing wife, did not want a divorce, reasonably fearing Iguerbouchène would not support her.
Wartime collaboration in France was vast, and following the Liberation came retribution. Mohamed’s alleged friend Edith Piaf, herself half-Berber, was one of the many who now felt the sting of being branded a traitor. Yet while named “a notorious collaborator” by the police, Iguerbouchène’s case was eventually closed. An intelligence file from 1946 explains why: he “had benefited, during the Liberation, from the protection of a high official,” and a hearing of his case was “likely to have repercussions of a very delicate character.”
In 1954, the Algerian War of Independence began. Hoping to improve his prospects, in 1957 Iguerbouchène returned to native land, accompanied by Vom Dorp and their children.
As he had in wartime Paris, in Algiers Iguerbouchène produced, composed, conducted, and presented radio programs of Arab and Berber music. He purchased a villa at Beau Fraisier, a picturesque quarter on the heights of Algiers. However, his home life was not happy. As both a German and a woman “living in sin,” Vom Dorp was not socially accepted. Adding to Vom Dorp’s isolation and loneliness, Iguerbouchène took the family’s housekeeper as a mistress. In 1957, Vom Dorp took the children and returned to their Paris apartment.
Adoring his children, the separation brought Iguerbouchène anguish, and marked the beginning of his descent into chronic illness. In Algeria, the situation was also deteriorating. As the War for Independence progressed, the cosmopolitan Algiers that Bernard Fraser Ross had known was transformed into a dangerous battleground. Eventually, in March 1962, the signing of the Évian Accords formally ended hostilities. Both sides had perpetrated unspeakable atrocities, and almost a million European-Algerians, known as pieds-noirs, had fled forever.
The country was now independent. But Iguerbouchène would soon discover the truth of the adage by the royalist journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan: “The Revolution devours its children.” In reaction to French colonialism, the new Algerian dictatorship committed itself to the complete Arabization and Islamization of the country’s culture.
As a previously favored Kabyle, Iguerbouchène had a strike against him. But to have been a prominent artist who’d worked half his life in the country of the enemy as a “westernized” man was infinitely worse. He now lived in a nation whose new administration had turned its back on him. Disowned and marginalized, he was now officially a non-person. Frustrated and embittered, in private Iguerbouchène would, like many Kabyles before him, damn greater Algeria as a land of “vauriens”—scoundrels.
Suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, Mohamed Iguerbouchène died in anonymity in Algiers in 1966 at the age of 58. He was forgotten, his works unplayed. When one of his friends visited his villa in the 1970s, they discovered his study was being used to raise rabbits.
In the 1990s, Algeria again became a slaughterhouse as civil war broke out between Islamists and the government. It was to rage for most of the decade, and with Islamists assassinating artists, rehabilitating a Franco-Algerian composer—even of Arabic music, even if he was safely dead—was not something to be pursued.
As the new millennium approached, the nostalgia of the old, and the curiosity of the young, wrought glimmerings of lament for the lost culture of that sunken Atlantis of French-Algeria, and a desire to recover some of its treasures. The rise of Kabyle nationalism further pressed Iguerbouchène’s case.
A smattering of articles on the composer appeared in the press, and in 2003 a 12-part, wildly romanticized television drama series based on Iguerbouchène’s mostly-imagined life. (The scenes with “Count Fraser Ross,” accompanied by a supposed wife, and performed by Arabic-looking actors portraying upper-class Scottish Edwardians, carried a whiff of Monty Python.) Even more bizarrely, despite his gross treason, in 2021 the French Government announced that Iguerbouchène would be one of 318 “heroes of diversity” to have streets and public buildings named after them.
It is not only tokenism that writes its own rules and history. As the recent farcical kerfuffle in Poland over Frédéric Chopin’s suppressed homosexuality also served to remind, most countries prefer their national icons to be reforged into simple asexual Christ-like figures. What Algeria will make of the real Mohamed Iguerbouchène is anyone’s guess. Better late than never: Here he is.
In recent years, events honoring Iguerbouchène have also been held in Kabylia. One exhibition featured photographs of him, copies of his music scores, and explanatory texts in an assortment of faux-gilt frames. Proclaimed one: “Le Comte Roth, riche et puissant lord…”
Bernard Fraser Ross would surely have been amused and proud of Iguerbouchène, out of whom the music had flowed like a living spirit. Unlike Iguerbouchène’s conflicted human self, the music was pure and noble, with an enduring life of its own. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.