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In conversation with DJ Tennis

If you think of DJ Tennis, you probably think of a touring DJ or the label owner of Life and Death. Yet, being in his late 40s, he has obtained his degree in computer programming and tried his hand in working as a chef before he started soundtracking movies, tour managing punk bands, organizing concerts, and making music himself. Throughout his career as a DJ, Manfredi Romano has seen it all, playing everywhere from Burning Man’s dust storms to the sweaty dance floor of Panorama Bar. What is less known about the internationally renowned DJ is that he’s been promoting events for over 20 years - including one of the first electronic music festivals in Italy - collaborated with Dissonance Festival, and later organized ELITA (Electronica Italiana), an event happening annually under the umbrella of Milan Design Week, and several other events in his home country. “I was a music nerd and I wanted to share my knowledge with other people, to create a community around it,” shares the artist. Despite his heavy touring schedule, DJ Tennis found a moment to share his vast experience of working in the music business and his own philosophy on promoting events, while packing for his next gig in Georgia. 

His passion for music started from his interest in post-hardcore, an experimental punk rock music genre that he started to work with as a tour manager of bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the artists signed on K Records. “People who I was working with introduced me to Pan Sonic; they were a groundbreaking electronic duo with a true punk attitude,” Manfredi tells me. The shift towards electronic music doesn’t seem surprising to him at all. “The common thing between electronic and punk music back then was that you did everything on your own and there was no major label or money behind it,” he adds, still walking around his living room and filling up bags small enough to fit in his suitcase. “You were doing it in your room or your garage with the few instruments that you had available. When we talk about underground and mainstream, it’s mainly about attitude, not popularity,” he goes on. “In the 90s, everything was very expensive, and we didn’t use a computer to make music. You had a keyboard, like this one,” he points at his Casio CZ-101, laying on the wooden dining table in front of me. “It’s so cheap but it was used for so many underground hits in the 90s! Or you were using a drum machine, which was probably around 60 dollars,” he continues reaching for his tiny Yamaha MR10. “You can make really good sounds with it. And you had a little sampler, a cheap microphone, and a really shitty mixer; this approach is what I consider punk, no matter which genre it would result in. What was changing was the instruments, not the attitude.”

His first experience of DJing for the crowd was when he played tunes during parties at the tennis club where he used to work. That’s where his name comes from. “We had a cassette player and a mixer, and we were just selecting music for people to dance. There was no such thing as a recognized DJ back then,” he shares. “My main passion was for Italo disco and synth-pop. There is a beautiful documentary on BBC about the first synthesizers and how, taken out of the context of punk music, they influenced the pop movement and gave birth to synth-pop.”

As the quality of the electronic music scene in his second home, Miami, falls behind most of the European countries, Manfredi felt it was time to change things up in the city famous for its beaches and, though rather commercial, nightlife. “All the money I made with DJing I invested into production or sharing my knowledge about music with others, that’s my main role,” he explains. Manfredi teamed up with Dixon to create a festival, previously hosted under the name of his label Life and Death, now known as Rakastella. The event takes place annually during Art Basel, one of the largest contemporary art fairs. “We lose a lot of money to make these things happen and if we make any, we reinvest it into new events,” shares the promoter. “In Miami, there is a lot of competition. The public that is educated enough to check the less known artists makes up such a tiny part, whilst the majority is there to see huge names, which aren’t so present in our line ups. We are trying to bring 360 degrees musical range, including more experimental acts.” Nevertheless, he believes that this might be the first year the festival won’t make a loss. “You need to build a community; the public has to blindly trust in what you are doing. When you achieve that, you can offer them something they don’t know yet.”

Manfredi finds a lot of parallels between Draaimolen and his own approach to music and events. “Corporate marketing-driven mainstream festivals are taking over passion-driven local events nowadays,” he explains. “When you organize a festival like this, the risk of losing money is always much bigger than the potential of making money. Yet the passion drives them to make something better and reach those people who normally cannot afford – be that financially or time-wise – to go to Amsterdam. It’s a very important work that Draaimolen is doing; pushing forward the music outside of the cities where the nightlife is concentrated and flourishing. The reason why I’m particularly attached to what Milo does is that this pure spirit, which I witnessed since his very first steps, seems to be disappearing nowadays.”

DJ Tennis has been a regular name on the line ups of Draaimolen since their second outdoor festival in 2015. “I was only making my first steps as a professional DJ when Milo invited me and some of my fellow label artists to play at his festival,” he recalls. “He was one of the fans of my then-new label Life and Death. The festival was taking place at this little venue on a lake and the DJ booth was actually a bar. The beer tap was right next to my CDJs! Imagine if a DJ booth was right there,” he points in the direction of the kitchen, visible through the vast window frames separating it from the living room. “It was one great party though: firstly, because it was the first time I went outside of Amsterdam and, secondly, I was surprised by how passionate the people were about the music! I believe this is the driving force behind Draaimolen,” he tells confidently. “Since then I was performing for them at least once a year.”

It’s been almost an hour since I arrived at Manfredi’s house, which meant it was about time to leave, so he could finish packing. Yet, after reading his 2017 interview for Magnetic Mag, I couldn’t stop wondering if he was getting tired of the relentless life of a touring DJ. Before leaving his house, I asked DJ Tennis if he was planning to stay in the game for much longer. “I hope I can do this until the day I die,” he laughs. “Is it possible?..”