LONDON: Two Egyptian sisters, Sarah and Laura Ayoub, are rapidly establishing themselves among the UK’s premier young classical musicians with their mesmerizing talent. We met for the first time at the Arab Women of the Year Awards in London last November where they collected an award for Achievement in Cultural Exchange. Now, we’re sitting with the sisters at the stylish Balans Soho Society café in Kensington.
Sarah, the eldest, plays the cello, while younger sister Laura plays the violin. They were raised in Scotland, where their father, a maxillofacial surgeon, earned his PhD at Glasgow University before he and his wife settled in the city.
The sisters’ musical aptitude was evident at an early age. Sarah describes how their mother took the two sisters to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Glasgow Concert Hall when they were very young. In fact, at just 18 months old, Laura was really too young to attend, but she sat quietly throughout and stunned her mother by humming the music on the way home.
Sarah showed the same precocious talent. When her mother enrolled in night school classes to learn the keyboard, she discovered that when she sat down to practice with her daughter perched on her knee, her little girl could play everything by ear. So, she decided to enroll her daughter into the class, saying, “You’ve got more promise.”
At primary school the sisters had the option to play either trumpet or violin. Their mother, Sarah recalls, calculated for a moment before declaring: “Trumpet? A bit too loud. Let’s go with the violin.”
By the time the sisters were ready to move on to secondary school, it was clear that their musical talent needed to be the focus. They attended the Douglas Academy School of Music in Milngavie, Glasgow.
“It didn’t mean, at that point, that we had chosen music as a career,” says Laura. “We were just going to crank it up a notch.”
That meant violin, cello and piano tuition; singing lessons; harmony; and composition and music theory. They played in orchestras and quartets and sang in vocal ensembles and choirs.
But alongside their music studies, the sisters still had to study a full academic curriculum.
“The only way to fit all that in was that at some point during the school day, you had to miss out on an academic subject to receive your music lesson. It was up to you to catch up,” says Laura, recalling that, more often than not, it was the music students carrying the heaviest workloads who were consistently at the top of their classes. The old adage, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it; the more things you do, the more you can do,” comes to mind.
Sarah went on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Laura at the Royal College of Music in London.
It was only when Sarah moved to London and the sisters started sharing a flat that a closer musical collaboration began. “We tapped into this creativity that we didn’t realize we had and started writing new things and playing in different styles,” says Sarah.
In 2016 they were selected for a “Priceless Surprises” campaign organized by Mastercard alongside Grammy award-winning DJ and producer, Mark Ronson, thanks to their cover version of Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” (the smash hit performed by Bruno Mars). The sisters say they felt a little conflicted about entering the competition by putting the video online, as they knew that whenever anyone pops their head above a parapet it can attract unfriendly fire.
“I had just started my undergraduate studies at the Royal College of Music and the standard was incredibly high,” Laura says. “I don’t think anyone was really venturing outside of the classical sphere at that point. For me, as a first-year student, putting that video of us playing ‘Uptown Funk’ online was quite scary. We almost didn’t do it. Anything that resembles self-promotion usually comes with a bit of potential judgment — but (eventually) we followed through.”
And it had an electrifying impact on their lives. Not only were they among the six acts whose covers were selected as winners by Ronson, but they then found themselves in the iconic Abbey Road studios recording a collaborative version under the famous producer’s direction. That recording was played at 2016’s prestigious BRIT Awards to an estimated TV audience of 5.8 million.
“The fact that Mark Ronson selected our version — which was in its complete infancy with under 200 views, most of which were from our mother to be honest — was incredible,” Sarah says. “For him, it would have meant many hours going through potentially thousands of YouTube covers.”
In 2017, the sisters dropped their debut album, “The Ayoub Sisters” — recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Abbey Road Studios. It was released by Decca in partnership with Classic FM and went to Number One in the UK’s Classical Artist Album chart.
One track on the album that the sisters are particularly proud of is the beautiful “Call to Prayers (A Message of Unity),” in which Sarah and Laura utilize the Islamic call to prayer — the adhan — and evocative chants from the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy to deliver a powerful message of peace. “In a musical way we symbolized how these two faiths can thrive together beautifully and in harmony,” says Laura.
On their website the video of this recording includes a quote from the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb: “The time has come for the representatives of the Divine Religions to strongly and in a concrete way turn towards mercy and peace.”
The sisters themselves, of course, are living examples of cultures coexisting. They say they greatly value their Scottish upbringing and all the opportunities their schooling opened up to develop their musical talents, and they are also very proud of their Egyptian heritage, which they say means more to them now as adults than it did when they were young.
At the time, their annual childhood holidays with family in Cairo seemed routine, but they have grown to really appreciate their culture to a fuller extent. They have performed at the Cairo Opera House and had the honor of playing the Egyptian National Anthem live at the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, where they received an award for their musical achievements from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The sisters, who manage themselves, are now in demand from fans around the world. Their schedules are becoming increasingly hectic, and the sisters are conscious of the need to maintain a healthy work/life balance. “We recognized last year that that’s something we should be careful about,” Laura says. “We try to go out as much as possible. It’s important to get out of the flat — which is our workplace, studio and rehearsal room as well as our home. It’s so easy, especially in the winter, to stay in. When you don’t have concrete work hours built into your schedule, you can find yourself wondering ‘Where does my day start and when in theory should it end?’”
They are apparently in the very early stages of discussions about performing in Saudi Arabia. “We have had a few enquires and we are very keen,” says Sarah. “I have noticed that there is a buzz happening in the Middle East and Gulf region. It is becoming more and more recognized as a cultural hub for music and art.”
And wherever they travel, they make a point of contacting local primary schools to try and arrange music workshops. “Giving our time in this way is rewarding, and educational for us as well. We aim to do more workshops this year, especially in the Middle East. It’s one of our big goals — to give back,” says Laura.