The acclaimed classical music duo on Glasgow Uber drivers, annoying the purists, and breaking their dad’s heart by choosing melodies over medicine
In 2021 there was almost a career-ending moment for Sarah and Laura Ayoub – better known internationally as The Ayoub Sisters, who were described by Arab News in 2020 as: “The Egyptian sisters revitalising classical music.”
After a performance in Scotland, Laura realised she had lost her precious instrument – a rare, and extremely valuable, 1810 J Gagliano violin, on loan from Florian Leonhard, one of the world’s leading violin makers.
Cellist Sarah, who grew up with her younger sibling in Glasgow, takes up the story...
“It was after a gig and we were asleep and woke up at our station on the way to Glasgow. We rushed off the train. We got an Uber and Laura was putting her stuff in the back when she realised she didn’t have her violin. We ran back to the station and chased after the train.”
Laura jumps in: “Then we raced back again to the Uber and told the driver: ‘Follow that train!’”
Sarah adds: “This was a Glasgow driver on a mission. He was like [puts on thick Scottish brogue]: ‘Och, you forgot your toy! I’ll put my foot on it.’
“He took it upon himself to race the train to the next station. Then Laura ran on to the train. By this point someone had picked up the violin case as ‘suspect’, unattended luggage.”
Laura: “I spotted a guy in high-vis holding my violin case like it was a bomb. ‘Is this yours?’ ‘Yes, sorry.’ ‘Don’t do that again.’ Then the doors closed, and we started moving.”
Sarah: “And she’s on her way to the next station.”
Sarah and the Uber set off in hot pursuit of the train. Happily, at the next stop, Laura disembarked with her $200,000 violin.
“The Uber driver was so nice,” Laura recalls. “He got out when he saw me coming with the violin and said [heavy Glaswegian accent]: ‘Oh, you’ve found your toy!’ I gave him a hug. He was so nice.”
“That wouldn’t happen in London,” says Sarah, who lives in the city with her sister. “The Uber driver would say: ‘No, I can’t. You have to change the destination on the App.’ They are so tight in London. Thank you to the Scots. He just went with the flow.”
The Ayoub sisters were born in Glasgow to Egyptian parents. It was a happy childhood.
“I had a fascination with conkers as a young kid,” says Laura. “There was something about them, the squishy green and the spikiness so you couldn’t get too close and then they would finally open up.
“I remember I would be on my mum’s shoulders and try to knock them off the branches and then collect them in a big plastic bag.”
Sarah adds: “In primary school we had a competition to plant a hyacinth at home and then come back after the Easter holidays and see who had the best one. I will never forget that.”
Their mother is a historian and Egyptologist.
“It is such a fascinating civilisation,” Sarah says. “She’d explain the drawings on the walls and all the hieroglyphics and the tales of what everything meant. Obviously we are very proud people, very proud of where we come from. She instilled that in us from where we were younger.”
She also helped instil in them a love of classical music. Laura was just 18 months old and her sister not yet five when they were brought by their mother to see Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Concert Hall.
“We were probably too young to be even allowed into the building,” says Laura.
“Some people would argue that large-scale classical works would be something children are too young to understand, but it was clearly so impactful for us that we then wanted to play and learn and take lessons.”
Sarah adds of that night: “My mother always tells the story that I didn’t know how to speak yet but I came back from that show singing the Messiah.”
There is also a fear of the unknown. What does being a musician mean? How do you make a living? What are the hours like?
They were also taken regularly to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
“We had seen full symphony orchestras from a young age. Right from the start we were lucky enough to be handed recorders and violins in primary school. We were literally, physically, playing instruments that young,” says Sarah.
“We were always listening to music and going to concerts. For as long as we can remember music was part of our life.”
Their father, a maxillofacial surgeon who earned his PhD in Glasgow, had hopes Sarah would follow him into medicine.
“I was very interested in medicine, biology and chemistry,” she says. “I was good at those subjects at school. So dad thought this was the opportunity to nurture one of my daughters and allow her in his footsteps.”
“I wavered slightly over whether that was my calling when I was 16 or 17, but I eventually applied for music colleges and the Royal College of Music in London, which was ranked number two in the world, offered me a place. I thought: ‘I have to see this through.’
“So I broke his heart a little bit with that decision because he was hoping that I would go into medicine.”
Had he given up on you, Laura?
“Totally,” she laughs. “I was a lost cause from the get on.”
“Now he’s very accepting and very supportive. It is just very new in our culture to have someone in a creative field. It is not considered the norm or the standard route to pursue. All of our relatives – aunts, uncles, cousins – were medics.”
“There is also a fear of the unknown. What does being a musician mean? How do you make a living? What are the hours like? All these questions nobody knows the answers to.
“There aren’t many musicians or artists, at least in the Egyptian community that we grew up with, or even the wider Egyptian community that my parents were around when they were in Egypt. They have no benchmark.”
They moved to London and started experimenting with classical music. They paired string-laden classical music with the sounds of the Middle East and other world music as well as pop, funk and folk.
In early 2016, as The Ayoub Sisters, they recorded a version of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s ‘Uptown Funk’ and uploaded it to YouTube. Their lives have not been the same since.
Ronson, hearing their version, invited them to Abbey Road Studios to produce a cover of the song, which was performed at the Brit Awards. Vogue Arabia wrote that the sisters “are giving classical music an Uptown Funk twist”.
Where did the idea of reinventing ‘Uptown Funk’ come from?
“We loved jamming,” Sarah says of the song.
“It was a guilty pleasure,” adds Laura. “As core, classically trained musicians, where it is very strict and very regimented, you’ve got the music and you can’t stray from the dots. It was something that we would do for fun.”
They played at the Royal Albert Hall in London . They played in Cairo and beyond. They became international stars of the classical music world.
We decided that experimenting with different sounds and different genres and different cultures and adding a little pop was our home
They were signed by Decca Records and released their self-titled debut album. Recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, it featured everything from folk to Shostakovich to a waltz rendition of ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson.
It also went to No 1 in the Official Classical Artist Albums Chart in the UK and was nominated for a Classic Brit and Global Award.
They released their second album, Arabesque, last summer. It had the same unapologetic cross-over elements mixing classical with Middle Eastern and pop.
They say that experimenting is fundamental to everything they do musically and artistically.
“We decided that experimenting with different sounds and different genres and different cultures and adding a little pop was our home,” says Sarah.
“We obviously love jazz and trad music and we have an Arabic influence,” says Laura. “So, coming up with something and merging different cultures together in sounds is where we were the most creatively satisfied, over learning and memorising and being true to classical music and studying the score.”
“We needed to do that training,” says Sarah. “And we are so grateful for that – and still get satisfaction out of it. But it is playing by ear and experimenting that brings most satisfaction.”
Do purists criticise you from straying from the classical path?
“There will always be purists wherever you go,” says Laura. “There are people out there and they like music a certain way. They like their food a certain way. They like their people a certain way. That’s just how they live.
“There’ll always be people like that. They’re probably not going to be into our music – and that’s totally fine. I can live with that.”
“Naturally, you are never going to appeal to everyone,” says Sarah. “But I think the one thing we have been so, so set on is to make sure whatever we’re doing is original – especially when it comes to playing around with pop or folk or music that already exists.”
Laura adds: “We’re so allergic to just doing a copy-and-paste or playing the melody exactly how it was written. We try and reinvent and bring something new and fresh and exciting.
“There are examples out there of cross-over done really well, and there are examples out there of cross-over done not well. The reason it’s got a mixed reputation is because there are so many examples of it not done well.”
I think from listening to The Ayoub Sisters’s innovative music you can make up your mind which category they fall into.
The Ayoub Sisters play Liberty Hall, Dublin on April 12. Tickets €19.50 from Ticketmaster.