The Ayoub Sisters – Laura (violin) and Sarah (cello) – shot to fame after their arrangement of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk was re-recorded and showcased in the 2016 BRIT Awards. This was followed shortly after by their self-titled debut album, released the following year, which reached No. 1 in the UK Classical Artist Album Charts.
Scottish-born, of Egyptian heritage, the sisters have made a name for themselves as outstanding crossover artists – composers as well as performers – who draw together not only musical genres but also cultural styles. They have performed internationally, including shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Cairo Opera House. Last year saw the release of their latest album, ‘Arabesque’, drawing on music of the Arab world in their own arrangements together with new material inspired by their experiences in the Middle East. They are now embarking on their ‘Arabesque’ Tour, bringing their music to Ireland and across the UK.
We caught up with them to find out a little more.
Is this your first time performing in Ireland?
Laura: We did open for Alexis Ffrench in the Helix a few months ago, a little opening slot, and we were so keen to include Ireland in our tour because of how amazing that concert was, how warm the audience were towards us – so we’re opening the tour with Dublin, we're absolutely buzzing for it.
As an intro, can you tell us where you started with music?
Laura: It was the obvious, clear fit for us right from the start, and we were supported in our musical education, we were so lucky that growing up in Scotland provided that for us. Our parents are originally from Egypt, so we had that extra element of listening to lots of Arabic music at home which has ended up representing who we are now as musicians. It's a culmination of all those different kinds of formative experiences from when we were small kids learning to play our instruments.
There's a wonderful tradition of music in Egypt, going right back – what was your way into this material?
Sarah: Those black-and-white films of Umm Kulthum singing away with an orchestra behind her, as well as the pop music of our parents’ generation, which would be slightly more commercial, but again rooted in the same harmonic minor scales and Arabic rhythms.
We were immersed in that music right from the get-go, and it was only later that we wanted to do our own research and look into the folklore of Arabic music across the region, not just Egypt, and dedicate a whole body of work to it. That's how our album ‘Arabesque’ came about.
You launched ‘Arabesque’ late last year, congratulations. Tell us more about it.
Laura: For a while we have been wanting to celebrate our heritage. We're very proud of where we come from, it's an amazing part of the world for all the senses, but especially your ears – the music, and what you hear when you just walk the streets of Cairo, or similar places in the region. We wanted to try and, somehow, pay homage to that, in a way that's true to us as classical musicians.
I get the sense that your work, rather than ‘crossover’, looks more to a feeling of reconciliation – would that be right?
Sarah: That's a really good point. For us, we draw inspiration, whether it's from our Arabic heritage or Scotland or music we grew up listening to, and try to work through it in our own way. So, I think, with this album, it is an Arabic album but it's for those that listen to classical music, film music, world music. It's that all-encompassing feeling which does suggest crossover, but with us we always try and send out a new message with our music.
How have audiences taken to your work – have you had opportunities to perform it in Egypt?
Laura: We're actually just back from performing this album at the Cairo Opera House just one week ago, which was such a special concert, because Cairo's our home away from home, it’s where our parents grew up. Writing this album, we always had that imaginary thought, that one day we'll go back to the Cairo Opera House and play this music for an audience that will know it better than anybody, and what we've done with it. That moment was last week, and it was really quite emotional, because it was just all of the work finally culminating in seeing the reaction, first and foremost, right in front of you, and how it makes the audience feel.
I'm taken with some of the venues that you're performing in on this tour: there seems to be a real community focus to each of them. In Dublin, you're going to be in the Liberty Hall Theatre and in London you play the Union Chapel Islington. Was this a conscious decision?
Laura: The obvious option was to go for a concert hall, or a small hall very much within the classical vein. Sarah and I are so keen that we bring the audience into the experience of this music and have them feel welcomed and represented by what we do. And I think choice of venues is key in part of that process.
Sarah: Absolutely, and we'll be joined by a guitarist [Giulio Romano Malaisi] and a percussionist [Daniele Antenucci], and doing some live looping as well, so it's not your typical classical concert experience where there's a Steinway piano and a couple of chairs. It's a very different concert that we'll be putting on. I think the venues reflect that diversity as well.
It’s striking how you began this journey. Fresh out of conservatory training, and you release this video of Uptown Funk. How did that come about?
Sarah: We'd love to just get into a room and jam and play whatever was on the radio. Uptown Funk was on X Factor, we were just having fun with it, and that fun spiralled into something amazing. We ended up meeting the song’s producer, Mark Ronson, and then recording a brand-new version and it all took off from there. It was just one of those bizarre experiences that you cannot plan for, it just happened.
Laura: You never know who’s watching, that’s for sure. It’s funny, we always reflect over that and the little niggling thoughts we had of ‘are we really going to upload this?’, and that mentality almost won. So yeah, for your decisions not to be led by fear, I think, is important.
What possibilities do you see for young people coming into classical music now?
Laura: Over the years, especially since Covid, I think there's been this realisation that we have to encourage people to be creative, because just giving them a piece of music – having them practice it on their own, then with their peers, then perform in a concert – doesn't tackle creativity. And one-on-one instrumental teaching doesn’t encompass creativity other than ‘will I phrase this in a different way, or maybe I’ll do something interesting with the dynamics'…
Sarah: … and it's not scratching the surface of the potential of an individual, what they can do with their instrument or within the industry. A lot of people are now discovering that they can write, they can arrange, they can record, they love production, they love video, and encompassing that with their musical training, which is so crucial and important, can just open the doors to endless possibilities.
Laura: These are all life skills that you can train and develop through music. Organisations are slowly realising that it is important, and we do as much of it as we can when we're working with young people to try and get them to be creative, think on their feet, and take inspiration from the others around them.
What ideas have you got in terms of what you'd like to do next?
Sarah: We're in the process of writing a film score which is really awesome; it’s great to tap into some writing, something completely brand new. Our album ‘Arabesque’ features a few compositions of ours, and I think that's something we want to do more of – writing original music.
Laura: Yeah, it's definitely scratched an itch that we both have, combining different mediums, having visual stimulus or a story to draw inspiration from. I think storytelling, composition and orchestration is probably what the future is going to hold for us, along with performing.
The Ayoub Sisters ‘Arabesque’ Tour opens in Liberty Hall Theatre, Dublin, on Wednesday 12 April, at 7:00pm – to find out more, and for tickets, see theayoubsisters.com