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Florence Dixon

The Ayoub Sisters: Egyptian-Scottish musical duo know no bounds

Sarah (L) and Laura (R) are taking their unique style worldwide

Date of publication: 13 July, 2018

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The New Arab Meets: The Ayoub Sisters, the classically trained multi-instrumentalists taking the crossover world by storm one catchy cover at a time.
Two years after their first YouTube video went viral, thanks to British musician Mark Ronson, The Ayoub sisters have gone from strength to strength. 

The Scottish-Egyptian multi-instrumental duo have since scooped a Classical BRIT nomination, scored a best selling album, and played across the globe, including the high temple of classical music, London's Royal Albert Hall, twice. 

At the ages of 22 and 24 and barely out of music college, Sarah and Laura Ayoub are being catapulted along a starry path to classical-pop crossover superstardom.

Their most recent tour to Egypt to debut as The Ayoub Sisters for the first time was, for them, the career-defining turn of monumental proportions.

"It felt like a homecoming," says Sarah, the older of the duo, who is usually on the cello.

"Before we even played a note, the walk on to the stage for the first time and the whistling and clapping was just so special," says Laura, the younger sister and violinist, eyes wide.

The Ayoub Sisters attend The Global Awards 2018 at
London's Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith in March this year [Getty]

"We brought a loop station and did a lot of quirky things that the Egyptians probably hadn't seen or heard before, so that was a slight risk. But the reception was so positive," adds Sarah.

They gush about the professionalism and the musical talents of the Egyptian team who put together the concert with the Cairo celebration choir.

"We were shocked! This is not the Egypt that we thought we knew," laughs Laura.

"We were in a hall to fit about 1,600 people. There was no shortage of lights, sound, LCD screens – all the tech you can imagine. And it was just the smoothest thing," adds Sarah.

Despite the dizzying heights of their success, propelled by crowds of fans and avid media attention, the pair seem grounded and unfazed, perhaps due to their Scottish upbringing and close family ties.

"My mum came with us to Egypt last week and filmed the whole thing on her tiny Sony HD camera, which was a real throwback," says Laura. 

"She used to come to all our concerts and everything with the same camera." 

Born near Glasgow to Egyptian parents, the pair were raised on a eclectic musical diet of Boney M and Queen pop classics, as well as traditional Egyptian music and Classic FM.

Both Sarah and Laura's musical talents and curiosity were nourished by a full Scottish musical education, which they have used their platform to champion.

"There is a tradition that is respected in Scotland of traditional music," says Laura.

Sarah adds: "There was a system in place to nurture and support talent. Had we been born and raised somewhere else, it might have been a different story."

Playing in a ceilidh band (traditional Scottish dance music) as youngsters may have nurtured their taste for traditional Scots tunes, such as their latest offering, Melodies from Scotland, a tribute to Robert Burns featuring Auld Lang Syne along with other of the poet's iconic works.

Born near Glasgow to Egyptian parents, the pair were raised on a eclectic musical diet of Boney M and Queen pop classics, as well as traditional Egyptian music and Classic FM

Soon however they were weaving together more disparate genres as their playing and tastes evolved during their time at music college.

"If we had a practice room for an hour, we would get together with some friends and start playing Rihanna, hoping that nobody found us. It was a guilty pleasure," says Sarah.

Not so guilty anymore, as the pair often rack up tens of thousands of YouTube views for their smart covers of catchy pop favourites, such as Uptown Funk which caught the attention of its producer Mark Ronson. 

Sarah and Laura's cover of Uptown Funk caught the attention of its producer Mark Ronson [YouTube]

Also, in the pair's repertoire are Egyptian classics such as Helwa ya Baladi or Ah ya Zein, which have helped them cultivate their Arab fanbase.

"We put out a couple of videos of specific songs that resonate particularly with people in the Middle East. We found as a result of uploading them, our following from specific countries has just gone like that," Laura says as she gestures wildly. She adds that performing in those countries is "very high up on the to-do list".

They put their success in the crossover field down to their stringent creative process.

"We're very quick to shoot ideas down without fear whatsoever," says Sarah.

But it also stems from their respect for the genres they straddle, in particular for pop music.

"There's a lot of people that can play pop music in a slightly derogatory way," says Sarah.

Laura adds: "That is really one of our pet peeves... People that play pop crossover music and put zero thought into it. There has to be a reason for you to translate this music onto your instrument and hopefully do something new with it, or add another dimension to it."

Despite their promising beginnings, it seems the sisters have had to convince people in Egypt that music could also be a career, rather than just the expected more 'traditional' professions like a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

"There is a stereotype that it is ayb, haram [improper]," says Laura.

Her sister Sarah adds that most people in Egypt have this opinion that the arts – music, dancing, acting – should be kept as a hobby.

"Keep it as a hobby, that's a liberal frame of mind actually," she laughs.

If it's one thing they hope to achieve through having Egyptian fans is to change this way of thinking and put their liberal message across.

There's no shortage of talent in Egypt that's for sure, but the mentality needs to change, and it's not going to be easy

"These are Egyptian parents who have encouraged us, and this is what we've been able to achieve," Sarah says about her own parents.

"They supported us and because of that, we've been given this platform and been able to share our music and messages with lots of people.

Warming up with the Cairo Celebration Choir
[courtesy of The Ayoub Sisters]

"There's no shortage of talent in Egypt that's for sure, but the mentality needs to change, and it's not going to be easy," she adds.

Yet they are hopeful. They believe that if they could do it, anyone can.

Fully aware of the power of their internet platform, they are keen to share its merits.

"One piece of advice we would give to an emerging artist is to believe what you have to say, and once it's got to the point you are fully convinced by it, share it with people, don't hesitate," says Sarah.

Her sister Laura agrees.

"As long as you believe in what you have to offer, you never know who's watching and you never know the power of what you're about to do," Laura adds.

"That Uptown Funk video is a prime example of that. The internet can be an extremely powerful tool and it's so far worked really well in our favour."

They are quick to evade any box you try and put them in, whether stylistically – oscillating between traditional Scottish folk songs, Egyptian classics or a fresh new cover – or in terms of identity.

Sure, their hybrid musical genre reflects their composite influences and experiences, but they shun any idea that they need to champion any part of their identity over another.

Music is their way of universalising these divides that many others see as obstacles, and putting out a message of tolerance, open-mindedness and fun.


Florence is a Middle-East focused journalist and staff writer at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter @flo_dix

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