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  • Writer's pictureSiqian Li

The Ayoub Sisters: Find yourself and the unique voice comes from within



“El Helwa Di” is an Arabic song featured in the Ayoub Sisters’ latest album, Arabesque, a celebration of and tribute to music from the Arab World. I was completely mesmerised when I first came across this music video. 


Scottish/Egyptian instrumentalists and composers The Ayoub Sisters (Sarah Ayoub & Laura Ayoub), rose to stardom after their debut album premiered at No.1 in the Official Classical Charts. The sisters are recognised internationally for their chemistry on stage, as well as their ability to unite different musical genres and cultures together through their unique compositional style. Classic FM praised them, “The word 'incredible' is overused but the Ayoub Sisters are exactly that”, and The Independent described them, "Surely these are stars in the making".

Discovered by multiple Grammy-Award winner, producer and DJ Mark Ronson, The Ayoub Sisters’ album Arabesque shot to No.1 on the iTunes Chart. They have performed across the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Asia with highlights including appearances at the Royal Albert Hall, London Palladium, The Cairo Opera House and Dubai Opera.


I am SO honoured to have the Ayoub Sisters as my guest artists for this episode of the interview! I hope you were as enchanted as I was by their music video for “El Helwa Di”. Now, let’s dive into their world of music creation!


Siqian: Hi Sarah and Laura, thank you both so much for accepting my invitation for this interview series. First of all, I must say I am a big fan of your music. You two as a duo have brought a unique taste to your music style - a fusion of classical, Arabic, jazz and pop music, etc., and I absolutely love the cultural influence behind it! I wonder what are the pivotal experiences that have shaped your compositional style and how did it all start?


Laura: We have always been very interested in taking music from any genre that we enjoy listening to and doing something that is unique with it. Whether rearranging the instrumentation, orchestration, or entirely revamping the style, it’s just always something that brings us a lot of joy and creativity. But surprisingly, the Arabic fusion in our music actually came later in our musical journey. Although our first album featured one or two Arabic-style influenced songs, we realised after its release that something essential was missing - our cultural roots and identity. We had always aspired to celebrate our Arabic heritage through our music but were uncertain about the best approach. The pandemic lockdown provided us with the time and space to figure it out. This exploration culminated in a full album, Arabesque, that blended old folk music from the Arabic region with our original compositions inspired by trips to Egypt. Rather than hastily pursuing an "Arabic" sound, we are grateful for the opportunity to thoughtfully create work that we feel proud of and genuinely resonates with us.

 

Siqian: That is so true. The pandemic is actually a precious time for artists to slow down, to think and create.


Laura: Absolutely!


Violinist Laura and cellist Sarah in Egypt

Siqian: So you've done some really cool arrangements of pop songs too. Which one was the first you tried doing? And how did this idea come initially?


Sarah: “Uptown Funk” was the very first pop song we covered. Oh gosh, it all started out super casual - just the two of us playing and jamming four hands on the piano, and on the cello and violin too. But we had frustrations because, with just our two voices, we couldn't capture all the rich harmonies we know a symphony orchestra can really bring. So, initially, we laid down some basic ideas on cello and violin and also used a loop station. Then later when we had a chance, we made an arrangement for the full symphony orchestra, with us on piano, violin, and cello. But we didn't stop there! We thought why not add a Latin percussion session too since we both love salsa?! So the whole process was very random, but in a weird way, it ended up being a very honest arrangement of musical flavours and styles that we love.


Siqian: Such a huge range of sounds! And it’s such fun to listen to your version of “Uptown Funk”, as well as “Billie Jeans”. Was “Billie Jeans” arranged around the same time?


Sarah: Haha, yes! But it actually started off super stripped-down, just with the strings, as if the “Flower Duet” had been written by Michael Jackson with only two voices doing harmony and octaves and that pizzicato plucking. Again, we started off with the loop station, though looping all the different orchestra parts really took forever! 😄 But the basis was just this beautiful melody that we wanted to reimagine with a totally different time signature and vibe from the original 4/4 disco vibe.



Siqian: Haha, I love that idea! I guess your rich background playing multiple instruments has fueled your vivid imagination and desire to compose for a full orchestra. What was the very first instrument you learned to play?


Laura: It was piano or rather keyboard. This was shortly after our parents had moved from Cairo to Glasgow. They always had an appreciation and love for music, but never had an opportunity to receive music education. But when my mom saw an ad for keyboard lessons, she signed up for the class for herself and brought Sarah who was just a toddler at the time. Sarah was fascinated watching my mom practice and would try playing the keys herself, as if to say “I can do it better!” So my mom enrolled Sarah in the classes, and a couple of years later I joined too. That keyboard opened up the whole world of music for us. We became insatiably curious about all the other instruments after seeing them at our primary school. It was just mind-blowing! From the keyboard, we went on to try basically every instrument we could get our hands on, so eager were we to explore all the different sounds and techniques. 


Siqian: Wow, I see! Have you ever tried drums?


Sarah: 🤩 (Excited face and nodding)


Laura: There was a drum kit at school! And we thought playing percussion was SO much fun! Now we probably have 50 drums at home from different Arabic and African countries. Whenever our dad would travel for a conference to an obscured place, he’d come back with a new drum. So if you look around our home, you will find strange-skinned drums on every corner! 😄


Siqian: Omg, I would definitely love to have a collection like that! It would be so cool to play the drum kit, and I have always wanted to learn playing it! 


Laura & Sarah: (Both laughing)


Siqian: So, if you were to compose a piece of music, what instrument's sound would initially come to mind and inspire you the most?


Laura: Gosh, that’s hard! We love writing for the orchestra, because we played in so many orchestras growing up and played so many incredible symphonies, and I think there is just nothing more epic than a symphony orchestra. So our go-to is to write for orchestra, but actually, this is our problem - we always want to make the grandest, most intricate arrangements or compositions that involve so many different instruments and sounds, because when all these sounds unite, it’s pure magic, but it's not always the most practical thing. So sometimes we have to stop ourselves from creating something we might not ever be able to play because touring with a full symphony orchestra isn't happening every day, so you either need to water down your arrangements or find a way to fulfil all the different sounds and harmonies from two people. That's essentially why we bought a loop station to solve the problem. 


Siqian: So you need something that can encompass your entire envisioned soundscape.


Laura: Yeah, exactly.



Siqian: That's really cool. I've listened to your debut album and the music featured such a diverse blend. The arrangements for the two pop songs you just mentioned were absolutely fantastic, but I'm also very intrigued by “Melodies From Scotland” on the album. 


Laura: “Melodies From Scotland” is essentially a compilation of seven traditional Scottish folk songs that we grew up listening to, which we then wove together into orchestral arrangements.


Siqian: It draws inspiration from the musical traditions you were immersed in while growing up.


Laura: Yes, absolutely. 


Siqian: That's wonderful. Could you talk a bit about the Arabic song “Misirlou / Ah Ya Zein” on the album? It’s so exotic!


Laura: While most people recognize “Misirlou” from its use in the film Pulp Fiction, they may not realize it's actually a very old folk song originating from the Arabic regions. However, we fused it with another Egyptian folk tune called “Ah Ya Zein”, written in Arabic. The two melodies intertwine and are played simultaneously toward the end of our arrangement.


Siqian: That's an intriguing pairing of songs. What are the stories or meanings behind them?


Laura: “Misirlou” is an ancient folk song from the Mediterranean region. It has been sung and adapted in various languages like Arabic, Greek, and Turkish over time. While different regions in that area have claimed ownership over the song's origins, its true origin remains a mystery. However, the title itself translates to referencing an Egyptian woman or girl. And “Ah Ya Zein” is an Egyptian folk song. We heard that one for the very first time in our uncle's car when we were kids. A lot of those melodies and songs got stuck in our heads from family playing random cassettes and tapes for us back then. We didn't really think anything of it at the time. But then like 20 years later, we realized all those jams were still rattling around up there!


Siqian: It's really special to be able to reinterpret music that impacted you as a child - it allows you to add your own voice to it. I'm curious, what kinds of themes and subjects do Arabic folk songs typically explore? In Chinese folk music, the songs often depict the beauty of nature, express various emotions and feelings, or provide glimpses into the lifestyles and cultures of different ethnic groups within China. What about in the Arabic musical tradition - what do those songs commonly reflect or portray?


Laura: It's actually quite similar to what you described about Chinese folk music. I’d say there are two distinct types of Arabic folk songs. One type vividly paints scenes of the natural landscape and daily rhythms of life. For example, in the opening track “El Helwa Di”, from our album Arabesque - the first lines depict a sunrise, roosters crowing, people waking up, and women baking bread while the men head off to work for the day. It's almost like a snapshot capturing an ancient way of living. The other type is love songs, poetically describing a woman's beauty - her rosy cheeks, gorgeous features, and so on. So the songs either provide a glimpse into traditional lifestyles and surroundings, or they're odes celebrating feminine beauty and romance.



Siqian: Speaking of “El Helwa Di”, the music itself vividly reminds me of my trip to Cairo many years ago!


Laura: Oh wow!


Siqian: The music is so deeply intertwined with and evocative of the environment and nature there. Just listening to it, I can vividly sense the heat, the dry desert air, and the vast landscapes! Words can hardly capture the powerful feeling it elicits, but it’s simply magical, and I believe only music can create this magic!


Laura: Absolutely. The nature was definitely a core inspiration behind that piece!


Siqian: Also, the music video of “El Helwa Di” is mind-blowing! Can you share some behind-the-scenes stories?


Laura: The music video was filmed in several different locations in Egypt. The majority of the scenic desert landscape and the magic lake are in El Fayoum, which is essentially in the middle of nowhere, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cairo. 


Sarah: You can even go camping there if you want! It's located in the western desert, it's popular for luxury camping experiences and stargazing. The area's natural beauty makes it an appealing spot for tourists.


The Ayoub Sisters in El Fayoum

Siqian: I wish I could visit there at some point! But in the music video, it seems nobody was there except you two! Did you have to book the area, particularly for the filming? 


Laura: Well, we could only film at either sunrise or sunset so we could avoid harsh shadows from the sun. We were there at about 4 a.m., obviously, everybody was asleep around that time. That’s why we managed to capture stunning drone footage of the vast, empty landscape! We worked with a local Egyptian film crew who were familiar with the area. Their expertise was invaluable in finding secluded, off-the-beaten-path locations where we could get all these amazing shots with no single soul around!


Siqian: Omg haha, that area definitely looked inaccessible from the video!


Laura: Yeah, it was quite an adventure! Some of the cliff scenes were particularly challenging - Climbing up in our gowns and then being up there were so dangerous and risky. The wind was very strong, and we were just trying to hold ourselves and not fall! It was definitely the most daring video we've ever done. But I suppose that's what it takes to achieve such dramatic results - pushing ourselves to the limit in these extreme conditions.


The Ayoub Sisters filming in Cairo

Siqian: This sounds SO cool! The video definitely pays off your efforts! So how long did you spend to make the whole video shooting?


Laura: It was a really fun few days! We filmed in El Fayoum for two days, followed by a return to Cairo to capture footage at some of our favourite locations. We wanted to highlight these two very contrasting environments - you can be the only person in this vast, expansive landscape, versus you being in the middle of an extremely busy street surrounded by busy market stalls and constant interactions with people. It was such a vivid life experience!


Siqian: I am sure, it sounds like an epic experience! It's also a great way to output the culture.


Laura: It was on our bucket list. For years, we've wanted to film a music video in Egypt and create a tourism campaign for Egypt.


Siqian: I would definitely want to visit Egypt because of your video!


Laura: (Laughing)


Siqian: It seems that you draw a great deal of creative inspiration from nature - your original composition “Night Train”, was incredibly evocative and painted a vivid musical picture. Was there any story behind this composition?


Sarah: So “Night Train” was inspired by a real-life train journey that Laura and I took from Cairo to Aswan, a city further south down the Nile. We had a concert in Cairo late at night, and we had to be in Aswan the next day. So the only way we could get there was by taking that midnight train. Those trains have not been touched for years - they are exactly how they were built way back when Germany was split into East and West, as the plaques displayed "Made in East Germany". The train was very safe, very good, but just really, really basic. 


Siqian: Sounds adventurous! 🤭


Sarah: Yes! The first thing that we experienced was the chaos of the train station, equivalent to London’s King's Cross, but everything was in Arabic. The station announcement would say platform 15 while the screen shows platform 5! So we were like, where do we go? And obviously, we couldn’t run with a cello, violin, two suitcases, and a loop station! 


Siqian: I can already picture that hustle!


Sarah: Exactly. That chaotic station experience inspired the fast opening of the piece, with the strings' rapid semi-quavers. But once on the train, everything became peaceful. We slowly travelled through beautiful villages, often seeing animals nearby. The view through the window was picturesque - like fairy lights among palm trees. As we moved south, the landscape grew greener, and we could see more plants, farmers, and animals. 


Siqian: It’s such a vivid piece depicting this whole journey! I particularly like the opening—I can literally hear the train coming! I wonder how it was orchestrated?


Sarah: It's a full-string orchestra and percussion. Instead of actually playing on this recording, we were in the sound booth acting as producers, which was a super fun experience.


Siqian: It seems like the drums are playing an important role in your compositions.


Laura: (Smiling and nodding)


Sarah: Yes, percussion is like the heartbeat in the music. It would be difficult to create the intended atmosphere without this pulse and rhythmic foundation. In Middle Eastern music, percussion is essential. In fact, when you listen to music from this region, the drums are typically the first sound that catches your attention.


Siqian: I noticed! You mentioned earlier that there are so many different types of drums in Arabic culture, right?


Sarah: Yes. The modern drums with plastic skins are less sensitive to temperature changes and easier to play. Then there are traditional drums made with animal skins. These are very sensitive to weather conditions but produce an earthy, almost tribal sound. The locals living in the villages along the train journey to Aswan, play these old kinds of skin drums made of wood and coconut shells, and these drums create a truly unique sound that’s deeply rooted in the local culture.


Siqian: Amazing! People nowadays still play those old drums in their daily lives?


Laura & Sarah: Oh yes yes!


Siqian: That’s incredible! I also heard that the drums play a big part in your new single Abdel Kader / Sidi Mansour, and it was featured in the album Arabesque as well, right?


Sarah: Yes!


Siqian: I love this piece and its melody has been stuck in my mind. 


Sarah & Laura: Hahaha, we apologize—we knew it would be stuck in people’s minds!


Siqian: Hahaha! So what are the differences between the two versions in the single and the album?


Sarah: So we wrote the first arrangement for the orchestra, and only heard it live for the first time when the recording was done. Although we wanted to change a few things, we were still very happy with how it came out. But then we really struggled - how can we do this with just two people? The two songs in this arrangement differ in tempo and harmony, and we were limited by the loop station's constraints.


Siqian: Sounds tricky!


Sarah: Yes! We had a brainstorming session and created a new arrangement for just the two of us. It was a breakthrough - we'd written an album we could actually perform live as a duo. It's different from the orchestral version, and it took us a while to reconfigure while maintaining the music's power and effect. We decided to take a somewhat minimalist approach, focusing on repetition. It's almost like a musical kaleidoscope where everything changes slightly, creating a meditative, hypnotic arrangement. This differs from the more energetic orchestral style. Laura and I ended up almost preferring this version to the orchestral one. We thought, "Let's release this as a single because it's so different." It's nice to have both versions - the minimalist, hypnotic one alongside the orchestral one. The version we just released was a live concert recording. It's unusual for us to say, "Let's release it without editing." But we were happy with how it turned out.


Siqian: I agree with you. Personally, I prefer this live version. 


Laura: Oh interesting!



Siqian: I feel it gets a more authentic flavour of Arabic culture—the folk vibes! So “Abdel Kader / Sidi Mansour” is a soundtrack that combines two different folk songs—what are the songs about? 


Sarah: Both songs share a spiritual element of seeking help. “Abdel Kader” is an Algerian folk song in which the singer, seemingly in captivity, cries out for freedom and help. “Sidi Mansour” depicts someone in captivity, but this time imprisoned by love, desperately calling for help as they're consumed by an uncontainable passion. Despite being unable to attain freedom or unite with their beloved, the song maintains an uplifting quality. These songs have inspired numerous covers by Arab artists and are frequently played at celebratory events like weddings and nightclubs. When these songs are being played, there's an immediate shift in the atmosphere - people begin cheering enthusiastically. Its euphoric nature resonates widely, allowing many to connect with its message.


Siqian: Music's spiritual power always resonates with people! I also heard some drums in this soundtrack. Were you playing certain Arabic drums there?


Laura: (Chuckle) Good question! There were actually no drums! It is the sound of tapping the side of the cello and violin, carefully. 


Siqian: I see!


Laura: It starts off with the cello, which makes a deeper sound of drums, and by tapping the side of the violin we create a higher sound of drums. So we've kind of made our own drums. 


Siqian: That’s super creative! I wonder how long have you two been performing as a duo?


Laura: (Chuckle)


Sarah: I believe we're going to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Ayoub Sisters being officially a duo! 


Siqian: Wow, congrats! How does it feel to work so closely with each other? 


Laura: It feels great! I can't believe it's going to be 10 years next year. To be precise, it’s 10 years in the industry, obviously it's been 20 years of playing together because we grew up playing together at school, concerts, and competitions, so it's been much longer. We wouldn't have it any other way. You know better than anyone that this industry is really tough and it's really gruelling. You need to have a lot of patience and to have a lot of support. Having a family member who is doing it with you is amazing, and we have so much respect for solo artists who are truly alone. They have a team, and they have friends and everything, but really having somebody that you know and trust with you at every point is just ……(burst into joyful laugh) absolutely crucial and I wouldn't want to do it any other way. 


Siqian: I can imagine! Having a sibling who's equally passionate about music must be incredible and a blessing! But I'm curious - given that you both had solo careers, what led you to pursue a career as a duo? Was there a specific moment or opportunity that sparked this decision?


Sarah: It all started with a competition 10 years ago. We could enter as soloists or as a group. Laura was going to do violin solo, needing piano accompaniment anyway. So I suggested we submit one video featuring us both equally. We chose Piazzolla's Grand Tango and called ourselves the Ayoub Sisters. And we won! Things took off from there. It was partly convenient, and it would also be weird to compete against each other. So, teaming up just felt right and natural.


Siqian: Playing together must double your strength!


Sarah: I think we're much stronger together, for sure.


Siqian: What is the most impressive concert you performed together or the experience you went through together?


Laura: Ummm… I think it would be the gala concert at Royal Albert Hall back in 2016. It was the prizewinner concert of the competition Sarah mentioned. I was still in college, struggling with technique changes, when suddenly we were playing at the Royal Albert Hall! It's one of our most memorable performances because we were so young and it was full of firsts: our live radio debut, our first time writing for a full symphony orchestra. We arranged “Melodies from Scotland” - the one that ended up on our album - specifically for this concert. There was so much insecurity in our minds - Would the orchestra like our arrangements? Would everything sound okay? Could we handle the pressure? We'd done plenty of concerts and competitions before, but this was by far the most high-pressure situation we'd faced and I would say it will always be up there among our most unforgettable concerts.



Siqian: I can imagine the stress but it was definitely worthwhile. How do you support each other when you feel super stressed?


Laura: (Chuckle)


Sarah: Hahaha, making jokes! Humour is our universal language of coping with anything. You just got to laugh and make the other person laugh. I think that's the key.


Siqian: Haha, especially when you are siblings, and you know each other’s bar so well! I've really enjoyed hearing the stories and insights of your musical journey and learning a bit more about Arabic music. I'm sure our readers will find them just as delightful. As we wrap up, I'm curious about your perspective on the rapid changes in the music industry in recent years, especially post-pandemic. Also, do you have advice for the younger generation of artists who want to make their career, and from your perspective, as musicians, how can we add value to the world?


Laura: Haha gosh, who wants to go first, Sarah?


Sarah: The industry has undergone massive changes, even within our generation - just consider the impact of smartphones and social media. It's even more dramatic when you compare it to our parents' or even older generation. So I think the ability to adapt is crucial, but also don't lose who you are in the process. The foundation should always be a genuine love for what you do. To stand out in a crowded market, you need to bring something unique to the table - whether it's your repertoire, compositions, or how you present yourself. There's no denying that luck and timing play significant roles. Laura and I certainly benefited from being in the right place at the right time, though it wasn't planned. We don't come from a musical family, and while we had guidance from friends and teachers, there was no set formula for success. It’s a crazy jungle, and we're still learning and adapting as we go. Embracing opportunities is key and surrounding yourself with motivating and inspiring people is invaluable.


Siqian: I completely agree! With a genuine passion and love for what you do, you can express yourself authentically. This authenticity allows people to form emotional connections and resonate with what you're presenting. That brings your unique voice, and you may find recognition in the market.


Sarah & Laura: Exactly!


Laura: Regarding your question about musicians adding value to this world…I think we have to look within ourselves to find the most effective way to offer…


Siqian: Find yourself first, right?


Laura: Absolutely. Finding ourselves is a long journey and we're still finding it and refining it. But we really found our footing when we discovered our true musical identity and sound. To echo Sarah's advice for young emerging artists: always look within yourself and focus inward rather than outward. It's tempting to compare yourself to others, but that's really, really not helpful. Remember, we are all unique. We've found our voice by harnessing what makes us distinct in our art and expression. So, The key is to first understand yourself, and then you'll naturally find your place. 


Siqian: Thank you both so much for sharing this invaluable advice. It’s been a fun time chatting with you!


Sarah & Laura: Thank you so much!


Don't miss the Ayoub Sisters' future performances and news!

All information is available on their official website and socials!

Instagram: @TheAyoubSisters



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