Egyptian sisters Laura and Sarah Ayoub are giving classical music an uptown funk twist – and bringing it to a new audience in their ancestral home.
Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
It’s a hazy day in Cairo, where the Ayoub sisters, 22-year-old Laura and 25-year-old Sarah, are perched cross-legged on a couch in their hotel room, contemplating their story thus far. From their wide-eyed gazes, it’s apparent that they still approach their intertwined journey with a sense of childlike wonder. Raised in Glasgow by Egyptian parents, their upbringing was infused with music – both classical and Arabic. They studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as well as the Royal College of Music, practicing for hours each day from the ages of four and seven years old. Now based in London and professional multi-instrumentalists – though Laura leans to the violin and Sarah the cello – they have already launched a career on the world music scene, writing and arranging classical covers and popular and folkloric songs.
Their path took a sharp upwards turn when they uploaded a cover of superstar American producer and DJ Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” to YouTube in November last year. Casual in matching black ripped jeans and cream tank tops – far removed from the formal gowns donned by most classical soloists – their long, curly hair swung and bobbed as they sawed away at their instruments for a group of some 30 youngsters sitting on the floor in front of them.
Hit play to see The Ayoub Sisters perform an exclusive, stripped-back arrangement of “Talat Daqat”, filmed in Egypt during Vogue Arabia’s shoot:
“It wasn’t anything spectacular,” nods Sarah, speaking English with a thick Scottish accent. “It wasn’t shiny or professional; in fact, it was very rough; but the timing was right.” It was soon brought to the attention of Ronson, who swiftly invited them to Abbey Road Studios to record a new cover for the 2016 Brit Awards. Within months, the budding musicians had signed a first record deal with Decca Records in partnership with Classic FM radio. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, they were playing at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2017 Baftas ceremony for an audience that included the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and actors Emma Stone and Nicole Kidman.
Their debut album, The Ayoub Sisters, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, soared to number one on the official classical albums chart. It features 11 rearranged songs from around the world, and one original composition, “Call to Prayers (A Message of Unity).” In a competitive industry, they are conscious of their edge. “You need elements of uniqueness to help you push through. Furthermore, Egyptians have been so supportive of what we do, which has helped us tremendously,” explains Sarah.
While the sisters currently live in London, the majority of their family live in Cairo, where the duo travels to every few months. In May, they landed another first: their debut joint concert as the Ayoub Sisters at the Marquee Theatre in Cairo. The anticipation and desire to lure the Egyptian audience resulted in many sleepless nights, with performing in the heart of Cairo being as unnerving and exciting an experience as their debut performance at the Royal Albert Hall. On stage, the sisters shared wide smiles between songs and maintained eye contact throughout the more difficult parts of their repertoire. Sarah occasionally swapped her cello for the piano.
“Having a family member with you on stage – someone you really know, who has worked hard with you to get there – brings trust and comfort,” Laura says. “I imagine it would be quite scary on my own.” Sarah agrees. “During the sound checks and rehearsals, the room is often empty. That is the scariest feeling because you see how big the venue is – yet when it is filled, the space transforms into a hug. Everyone is excited and ready to enjoy the music.”
The pair’s next Egyptian performance will be at the Cairo Opera House in January next year. They were also nominated for best group at this year’s Classic Brit Awards, alongside industry veterans Michael Ball and Alfie Boe (who won), 2Cellos, Cecilia Bartoli and Sol Gabetta, and Jools Holland and José Feliciano. “We woke up to an email saying, ‘Congratulations, you have been nominated. It was surreal. We still haven’t really processed it. The Brit Awards are a huge deal in the UK,” says Laura, gesticulating for effect. “To think that of all the classical groups that exist worldwide, we are on the radar of the people who make these decisions is still mind-boggling,” marvels Sarah.
Bubbling with energy and a sense of accomplishment, the Ayoubs find themselves contemplating their long-term goals. Many children in the West are handed an instrument at a young age to nurture their talent early on. In Egypt, however, music lessons are regarded as a luxury for those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. “If you don’t have money, you will never own an instrument, unless there is an organization with the sole purpose of giving young children the opportunity to polish their passion with education,” says Laura. She plays on a rare 1810 J Gagliano violin (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) on loan from London-based violin maker Florian Leonhard. “We want to create an initiative that gives children from less fortunate backgrounds more opportunities to engage with music,” she continues.
While many stereotypes have cornered instrumental music into a “sophisticated” corner, far removed from the masses, the Ayoub sisters want to introduce a new generation to the genre. Says Laura: “Many millennials and non-classical music listeners have written to us to say that while they don’t normally listen to this category, they enjoyed our album and listen to it when studying or when they come home from work. That is exactly what we hoped to achieve.”
Photography: Ämr Ezzeldinn
Style: Hussy El Celiemy
Hair: Kareem Zanati at Cosmetology Beauty Salon
Makeup: Diana Harby
Shot on location at Hilton Cairo Heliopolis Hotel and Zowara Camp, Fayoum