The Ayoub Sisters: confronting taboos in the classical world
From Strauss to Scottish folk via a ‘Billie Jean’ waltz, The Ayoub Sisters will play their take on classics in Dubai
If classical music needs dragging up, dusting off and kicking firmly into the 21st century – then The Ayoub Sisters have proved just the eclectically inclined, loop station-sporting, string virtuosos to lead the makeover.
Since their viral classical cover of Uptown Funk caught the ear of its composer Mark Ronson three years ago, the Scottish-Egyptian siblings – who make their UAE debut at Dubai Opera tonight – have performed at the Royal Albert Hall (twice), been commended by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and scored a number one album.
Changing the stigma of classical music
Released on Decca Records, 2017’s self-titled crossover hit album The Ayoub Sisters was recorded at London’s storied Abbey Road Studios alongside the city’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a historic ensemble that the fresh music graduates presented with self-arranged scores, verging from Strauss and Shostakovich, to Scottish folk songs, Arabic traditionals and a 6/8 waltz recasting of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.
“That wasn’t an effort to be as varied as possible, but to be as accurate to ourselves as possible – this is the music we listen to and enjoy playing,” insists older sister Sarah, aged 26. “On paper, the tracklist sounds a bit bizarre, but that’s us as musicians, and as human beings.”
“Classical music has this stigma that it’s elitist and snobby, and what we’re trying to prove is that it’s not,” adds Laura, the 23-year-old younger sister. “Helping people open their minds and hearts to other genres was subconsciously the plan – and our music seems to have done exactly that.”
Bringing their talents to Dubai
The sisters land in Dubai fresh from Egyptian engagements alongside the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, but in the UAE, they will scale things down to perform as an unaccompanied duo, opening a new season of Dubai Opera’s intimate chamber series, Music in the Studio.
Instead, they will reproduce the lush orchestral arrangements of their recordings with the aid of a loop station – an electronic gizmo that allows multiple live parts to be stacked on top of each other, made famous by Ed Sheeran, but almost a taboo in the classical world.
“That enables us to create our own orchestra, to layer up and make a huge sound,” says Laura. “It’s been a dream of ours for some time to share our music with the region.
Yet, these stripped-back duos might capture some of the chemistry that brought this pair success in the first place. Raised in Scotland to Egyptian parents, both took up piano early – Sarah was seven, Laura copied instantly, aged four – before switching to violin in primary school, while Sarah moved on to cello at 13 (the elder sister will play all three instruments in Dubai).
“It started off as siblings do – playing, singing, dancing together is not uncommon – and for us, we would play together,” says Sarah. Family performances soon turned into lunchtime concerts and after-school recitals, and by the ages of 13 and 10, the pair were performing piano duets at the Glasgow Music Festival.
“It was just very practical to have an accompanist or duo partner living under the same roof,” Laura says.
Finding viral success
The Ayoub Sisters only became a conscious project in late 2015 when the pair uploaded their kooky string version of Uptown Funk to YouTube to enter a competition, and realised it was cheaper to register as one group rather than two soloists. “We thought it was more economical to put in one entry,” remembers Sarah, “and actually, I think we realised we do sound and play better when we’re together.”
Covering Uptown Funk – the fourth most-viewed YouTube video of all time with 3.4 billion streams and counting – was a savvy piece of marketing. “I got an ad through college [which said] ‘agency books corporate events’ – so we thought: ‘OK, this will be a chance to make some money; what can we play that’s cool and quirky?’,” remembers Sarah. “We uploaded this video – it was filmed very haphazardly, very amateurish, there was nothing spectacular about it.”
But the tune’s author liked what he heard – although Ronson did take them to task over part of the melody being played “wrong” – and invited the sisters to record their version for the 2016 Brit Awards.
Meeting Mark Ronson
“After we met him and had this initial encounter, we got extremely creative,” says Laura of approaching the subsequent debut album, which flew to the top of the United Kingdom’s official classical music chart upon its September 2017 release.
“That meant that our idea – to include all this wildly varied music – worked,” says Sarah proudly. “People loved it and experienced new things through this album, new doors were opened for people who don’t think they like classical music.”
Work is currently under way on a second album and, rather than bowing to the snobs, the sisters promise something even braver the second time around.
“That’s our thing – we buzz off doing creative things by manipulating great pieces of music, but hearing different ways of executing them,” says Sarah.
“Watch this space,” adds Laura. “Album two could get really creative.”
The Ayoub Sisters will perform at Dubai Opera tonight. Tickets cost from Dh150, and are available at
Top five live
As the Ayoub Sisters kick off the fourth season of Dubai Opera’s chamber music series, Music in the Studio, we round up the other dates for your diary.
Jaume Torrent (February 20)
The Catalan classical guitarist premieres original material alongside music by Fernando Sor and Isaac Albeniz.
Anna Fedorova (March 6)
See the Ukrainian piano virtuoso tackle Beethoven’s beloved Moonlight Sonata, as well as music by Mozart, Chopin and Schumann.
London Mozart Players Quintet (April 24)
They are the UK’s longest established chamber orchestra and they’ve worked with notables from Igor Stravinsky to Julian Lloyd Webber. They play Brahms, Schubert and, naturally, Mozart.
Amy Dickson & Amira Fouad (May 1)
Series curator Fouad joins twice Grammy-nominated Dickson – the first saxophonist to win a Classic Brit Award – to perform music by Debussy, Ravel, Piazzolla, Saint-Saens and more.
Catrin Finch (June 12)
A household name after serving as the UK’s first Royal Harpist in more than 120 years, Finch has recorded two albums with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita. She will close the season with a programme of Bach, Debussy and Faure, coupled with traditional Welsh folk music.
Tickets for each performance are Dh150, with options for a four show pass, priced at Dh450, or a six-show season pass for Dh600. Book online at www.dubaiopera.com
Updated: January 29, 2019 04:49 PM