Even as the world was reeling from the backlash of a sweeping pandemic last year, two dynamic women, Pietra Mello-Pittman, 37, and Ella Spira, 32, were keeping themselves busy. As co-founders and directors of the music production house Sisters Grimm, the duo released five songs last year, which garnered more than 3.5 million views and featured leading musical talent from across the Middle East, including DB Gad, Arqam Al Abri, Shamma Hamdan, Don Abdullah Madyan Hamza and Layla Kardan.
With a Grammy nomination under their belt, the soul sisters who shuttle between Dubai (where they have set up a home writing and recording studio in Burj Khalifa) and London (where they hail from) were most recently awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for ‘Services to International Trade and to the Creative Industries’ in the 2021 Honours list.
Ask Ella what has made their partnership harmonious and she’s quick to reply, "We may be very different but share the same vision and have different strengths to add to the mix; that makes a perfect balance."
"We both have big visions. Ella wants to get to Mars, and I’m totally up for that, but need to work out the petrol," she laughs.
The ballerina and the composer
The accomplished duo first met in 2008. Pietra was a First Artist at the Corps de Ballet in The Royal Opera House, London, and had been choreographing various projects but did not really realise the chance of being a creative producer. It was a mutual friend who introduced her to upcoming composer Ella who had a background working across all pop and film scores.
"I invited Ella over to the Royal Opera House to spend some time in our archive library where we went through the different ballets and different styles of music," recalls Pietra. Connecting over their shared love for melodies and traditional classical music, the duo’s bond would get strengthened as they began working together on several projects.
"I had always been collaborating on creative projects outside of ballet with different creatives and artists in film, fashion, arts and photography. But it was only when I met Ella that it materialised into a shared ambition to create something new," says Pietra.
In 2009 Sisters Grimm was formed and they debuted with a short film called Rapunzel, The Final Chapter, a co-production with The Royal Opera House.
"We worked with an incredible team of experts from the film industry; it was the first time a project like that had been done in The Royal Opera House, with state-of-the-art cameras in a cinematic way," says Ella.
Over the years, the company produced musicals which celebrate cultures and inclusivity, collaborating with both traditional and contemporary performance artists from across the world to create diverse and transformational live experiences.
They have toured domestically and internationally to both mainstream success and critical acclaim, receiving glowing reviews from the BBC, ITV, The Independent and the Telegraph, among others.
They have also collaborated with renowned artists from Ladysmith Black Mombazo and Soweto Gospel Choir in South Africa to Samurai warriors in Japan presenting culturally vibrant stories through their productions. They run social impact and outreach programs with almost 6,000 beneficiaries to date.
One of their most successful musicals is the Zulu ballet INALA, which united South African and Western cultures, artistic disciplines, and backgrounds. It went on to score a Grammy nomination.
The duo attribute the popularity of their productions to the catchy hooks and beats and the cultural fusion. "[Our songs] are global, and the melody lines are really strong, and they feel accessible even though they are sung in a different language," says Pietra.
For Ella, the reason the two of them are different from others is because they don’t fit in a conventional box. "We are kind of sitting in that box of popular music but I am a classically trained composer and Pietra is a classically trained ballerina. We have brought these things together, which just does not fit in otherwise."
The duo agree that among the challenges they faced of being two female business leaders is that sometimes it "can be a struggle to be heard; mostly in terms of funding".
Then there is also the trouble to break beyond the image of being just a pretty face. "Some of the judgements we get from others is that they do not believe that we have achieved everything we have done by ourselves. We are still defined by our gender... and that will take time to change. We women live with the knowledge of having a slightly different place in society; which is fine! But we also have the right to make our choices of how we want to be. It is great that there are many examples of gender and racial empowerment, and that these conversations about equality for all are at the forefront."
Pietra is glad that the success of Sisters Grimm has disproved the myth that you can’t have a sustainable career in arts. "Many people believe it is unrewarding for all the hard work that goes into creative arts. But we followed our passions and ultimately feel fulfilled with every bit of our work.
"Another stereotype is that separate talents must exist separately and that they cannot be blended together. So it has to be either a concert, an opera, a ballet or a cultural world show. But we brought them all together; creating a whole new genre of live entertainment."
So, how do they counter discrimination?
"By simply ignoring it and continuing forward with a focus. We have not let it deflate our passion and enthusiasm. We have always commissioned our own projects and have always been in charge of the creative brief, enabling us to always find a way forward," says Pietra.
Ups during the pandemic
While the Covid was raging, they released a single, Just Saying Hi, in collaboration with 28-year-old Arabic songwriter DB Gad and film director Shantanu Suri. A powerful message of unity during these trying times, it was an instant success and also proof that even during compelling times, perseverance and a positive attitude can help you succeed. "Ditch anything that is negative, that is hindering you or making you feel insecure, and just move on," says Pietra.
Ella believes that the most important thing is to find something you are passionate about even if you can’t pinpoint why it makes you feel good at first. "Dig into what it is that you respond to and what it is that really gets you going and then pursue it," is her advice to upcoming artists.