Meet Lee Campese, Yukon’s most recent import and the latest addition to the groovy rhythmic assemblage, Major Funk and the Employment.
Campese, who has been drumming for 18 years, is no stranger to the spotlight, but this summer marks his first in the Yukon, and it’s going to be spent gracing numerous stages under the midnight sun.
Every wanderlust-turned-cheechako has a tale of their own for how they came to trek north, and Campese is no exception. The seasoned musician was invited by his friend and former bandmate, Etienne Girard. Campese was offered the position of drummer in the already thriving funk, soul, R&B, rock band, and it was an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
Campese and Girard played music together for four years in Nelson, British Columbia, as part of the group Hammerhead, alongside fellow Yukoners, Glen Emond and Marc Hamelin. The foursome met as students in the music program at Selkirk College.
Last fall, Campese took a month off work to fill in as drummer for Major Funk and the Employment on their B.C. tour. While on this auspicious road trip, which led the group through Vancouver, Kelowna, Cranbrook, Nelson, Ymir and Vancouver Island, it became apparent to Campese, that his adopted bandmates were becoming successful further north.
“I quickly gathered that everyone in the band was doing well financially,” Campese says. “Meanwhile, I’m doing the same thing in the Kootenays, but have been struggling.”
Conversations with the Yukon musicians kickstarted ideas about moving north, and eventually came to fruition this spring.
“They planted the seed to come up and find better work. It honestly started as a joke and then it became more serious,” Campese laughs.
After the band members returned home post-tour last year, Campese returned to Nelson, where he was born and raised, and where his family has lived for six generations.
Soonafter, Major Funk and the Employment was in dire need of a percussionist, and founder and bandleader Girard called Campese with an invitation to make the big move.
“It was a no brainer for me to come up and try something new,” Campese says.
Though Campese has found plenty of musical success in the artistic mountain community of Nelson with well-known Kootenay acts like The Huckleberry Bandits, Red Eyed Soul and more recently, Alpine Conspiracy, Campese felt like not enough was changing.
“I have to let go of some things so I can step into… I don’t know what,” Campese says. “This move is for the hope that I can grow more and find something I’m looking for.”
Girard helped Campese secure a place to live, and trumpet player Adrian Burrill, offered Campese a job working for his company, Bullet Hole Bagels.
Campese describes the transition from his longtime home to the Yukon as “seamless.” He packed his van with camping gear, bikes and drums, and made the 30-plus hour drive from Nelson to Whitehorse in five days. Campese started his bagel-making apprenticeship the first morning he arrived in Whitehorse.
Since landing on Yukon soil in April, Campese has been keeping a steady beat for Major Funk and the Employment. The local band that has been keeping audiences moving and grooving with their colourful, infectious and eclectic dance tunes since 2014.
The funkadelic collective, which draws influence from James Brown, Amy Winehouse and the Tower of Power, is unique in that the number of band members fluctuates. There are seven core musicians – Etienne Girard on bass, Fiona Solon on vocals, Andrea McColeman on keys, David Dugas on guitar, Glen Emond on guitar, Adrian Burrill on trumpet and vocals and Olivier de Colombel on saxophone, and now Lee Campese on drums – but the group makes their uptempo, bass-driven tunes with whatever musicians are available, often experimenting with new musicians and different sounds.
“I haven’t met everyone who plays in the band yet,” laughs Campese. “There’s that many people.”
Campese has played five gigs with the band thus far, and is looking forward to many more this summer. Major Funk and the Employment will be playing at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival, which takes place July 7 to 9; Arts in the Park in LePage Park on Wednesday, July 10 at 7 p.m.; in Dawson for Discovery Days, which takes place Aug. 17 to 20; and at a few Yukon weddings.
The band has been experimenting recently with dances choreographed to their original songs, as well as collaborations with other Yukon musicians, like hip hop artist Daniel Ashley.
Campese says he has felt nothing but warm welcome since his arrival, and he looks forward to developing his musical career here.
“I’m excited at how possible it seems to play music here,” Campese says.