Farrah El Dibany and Ayoub Sisters perform at Cairo Opera charity concert

The mezzo soprano and Scottish-Egyptian multi-instrumental duo were accompanied by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra for the sold-out show

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Mezzo-soprano Farrah El Dibany and Scottish-Egyptian multi-instrumental duo the Ayoub Sisters performed in a sold-out charity concert at Cairo Opera on Sunday night.

They were accompanied by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and Alexandrian maestro Nayer Nagui in a unique "crossover" show of classical, operatic and Arabic tunes.

The experiment was a success, judging by the positive engagement from the audience, who swayed in recognition to Sayed Darwish’s El Halwa Di, clapped to upbeat songs like the Algerian Abdul Kader and sang along with the finale mash-up of Dalida’s Salma ya Salama and Helwa ya Baladi.

El Dibany and the Ayoub Sisters — who play the violin, cello and piano — performed four songs together and split the remaining 16 in the Eternal Egypt concert at the opera’s 1,200-seat main hall.

“I was really, really excited to team up with the Ayoub Sisters and to collaborate on the songs that we did together,” El Dibany tells The National.

“I love that they do crossover and yet classical too. And I felt that what I do also resembles their line of work.

"Because, yes, I am an opera singer, but I also do crossover and I really felt that we could create something together.”

They certainly have a lot in common. The three have been honoured by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, performed at the Cop27 UN climate change conference in Sharm El Sheikh in November, and have won international acclaim.

Farrah El Dibany

El Dibany, 34, is the first Arab singer to join the Paris Opera Academy, in 2016, and has several accolades to her name, including the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.

Born in Alexandria, she moved to Europe in 2010 to continue her studies and started her career at the Berlin and Paris opera houses.

El Dibany has since performed all over the world, including at the Bolshoi in Moscow, Dubai Opera and the Venice Art Biennale.

She sang the French national anthem at President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election ceremony in April last year, and at the Fifa World Cup Final match between France and Argentina in December.

Her recent performances in Egypt include a solo show at Cairo Opera in June 2021, a celebration at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina library last May to mark the 20th anniversary of its revival, and the Cop27 gala evening in November.

It was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where she performed with maestro Nagui, who has been the principal conductor of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra since 2019.

The Ayoub Sisters

The Ayoub Sisters — Sarah, 30, and Laura, 27 — have also made the rounds internationally.

They have performed as soloists with some of the world’s leading orchestras, such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Glasgow to Egyptian parents, the pair showed musical inclinations at an early age. Classically trained, Sarah plays the cello and Laura the violin, while both play the piano.

They had their big break when their viral classical cover of Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk caught the attention of its composer Mark Ronson in 2016.

That helped them score a deal with Decca Records, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2017, which was recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Abbey Road Studios.

It premiered at No 1 in the UK’s Official Classical Charts.

In the Middle East, they played the Egyptian national anthem at the World Youth Forum in Sharm El Sheikh in November 2018 and performed at Dubai Opera and Cairo Opera in January 2019.

The sisters released their second album, entitled Arabesque, in July.

Eternal Egypt concert

On Sunday, the Ayoub Sisters started off the evening with Csardas by Italian composer Vittorio Monti, which was on their first album.

Laura then explained in her broken Arabic — at which she poked fun — the story behind the next piece, Egyptian composer Mohamed Saad Basha’s Mouled El Sheikh.

She said Basha had presented the sisters with this piece just a few days before their 2019 Cairo Opera performance.

They agreed to play the song, even though it is in quarter tone, contrary to their training, and have since included it in every show.

Most of the other songs were from their latest album, including Darwish’s El Helwa Di and the mix of Abdul Kader and Sidi Mansour.

Among their original pieces were Lamma Bada Yatathana and The Scottish Egyptian, which Sarah described as a “musical joke” that includes the sound of the “kallax” car horn in Cairo.

They also did not hesitate to include classics, such as Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca.

The Ayoub Sisters and El Dibany tag-teamed their performances, ending part one and part two of the programme with their collaborations, such as Habanera from Opera Carmen.

It was really a very fruitful and very rich collaboration artistically and personally
Opera singer Farrah El Dibany

El Dibany’s solo songs spanned a vast repertoire, including Mexican composer Agustin Lara’s Granada and Argentine composer Astor Piazzola’s Yo soy Maria, and opera pieces from Carmen and Samson et Delilah.

“I sang a lot of new repertoire that I haven’t sung before in Egypt, so it was also exciting for the audience who already knows me,” El Dibany says.

At the same time, there was a sense of “Egyptian pride” in the audience, she says.

She sang her heartfelt tribute to her hometown, Alexandria from Greek singer Alkistis Protopsalti.

Her most popular crowd-pleasers were undoubtedly Dalida’s Histoire d’un Amour and the combination of Helwa ya Baladi and Salma ya Salama, performed with the Ayoub Sisters in the finale.

“I felt really well supported by the audience. I felt that they were enjoying it. I saw joy, I saw excitement, I saw curiosity,” El Dibany says.

“It was really a very fruitful and very rich collaboration, artistically and personally.”

Charity cause

The concert and accompanying silent art auction was also for a good cause, raising money for the Kheir Wa Baraka and New Woman Association.

Kheir Wa Baraka (meaning “goodness and blessings”) was founded in 2004 with the aim of advancing the lives of Egyptian families in need through educational, health and economic projects.

The non-government organisation recently combined with New Woman Association, an institution founded by pioneering Egyptian feminist leader Hoda Sharawi in 1919.

Most of the concert ticket prices were about 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($65), going up to 5,000 pounds.

The artwork by contemporary artists ranged in price from 30,000 pounds to 600,000 pounds .

The 23 painters and sculptors included well-known names such as George Bahgory and Mohamed Abla, as well as up-and-coming artists.

Nevine Elibrachy, founder and chairwoman of Kheir Wa Baraka, tells The National the main goals of the concert were to publicise the organisation, raise funds and put a spotlight on talented Egyptians.

“We have so much to be proud of. Why would I get a foreign star when I have so many Egyptians that are so successful worldwide that I can tap into?” Elibrachy asks.

Updated: February 21, 2023, 11:14 AM