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Banjo-playing performer strikes a chord with Calgary audiences

Banjo playing performer strikes chord with Calgary audiences
WATCH: Keith Alessi made a lot of money in the business world but the former CEO says playing the banjo has made him richer in ways no job has ever done. Deb Matejicka reports.

For two weeks, Keith Alessi didn’t know if he was going to live or die.

“It was a heck of a wake-up call,” said Alessi of the time he spent in hospital fighting cancer.

“You really do reflect upon what have I done with my life?”

As a successful CEO, Alessi had made a lot of money and accomplished quite a bit in the business world but not much else beyond that.

“As a CEO you got to build certain barriers around yourself, right? You’re playing a role. I’m a baby boomer, you worked. You go to work every day. It’s work, work, work. You don’t pursue passions, nothing frivolous,” said Alessi, who is an avid banjo collector but had never learned to play.

It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer that Alessi started to question why and what it all meant.

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“I was quite literally in an intensive care unit and one of the promises I made to myself is that I would perform in public on one of these instruments I had not yet learned to play,” Alessi said.

READ MORE: Calgary musician reunited with stolen saxophones

Alessi beat cancer and kept the promise he had made to himself, taking his newfound skills and life story on the road with his one-man show Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life.

“The banjos represent literal banjos, obviously, but they’re also the life I chose for myself,” Alessi explained.

Alessi said troubles at home growing up led to him building emotional walls around himself. The show has helped tear those walls down.

“It didn’t start out very well but as we started gaining our traction and navigating the stage, we started getting very interesting reactions from audiences,” Alessi said.

“The last 18 months I’ve had more hugs, more stories, more tears, [deeper] personal connections than in any period in my life and it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

READ MORE: Friends of Calgary mom who survived cancer hoping for another miracle

Alessi has been performing Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me at Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo. It has been resonating with audiences and theatre-goers like Ian Robinson who is currently battling Stage 4 prostate cancer and has been helped by the arts in the same way as Alessi.

“[Creating art] has connected me to other people in a way I didn’t think I could be connected,” Robinson said. “It’s connected me to parts of myself that I was not aware [were] there.”
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Alessi will be donating all box office sales from his show to two local charities.

“For me, I just thought I’m going in to play the banjo. I never expected to find healing — emotional as well as physical — in music,” he said.