#380: Toots & the Maytals, "Funky Kingston" (1975)

It’s hard to describe marinara sauce; I could talk about the richness, the warmth that blankets you, the spurts of flavor that flood your mouth. But sauce is something that can’t be described so much as it can be felt. Everybody feels something when it comes to marinara — to any sauce, really. Ask somebody what marinara sauce makes them feel, and though they may look at you strangely, they’ll tell you. I asked a few people, they all said either “safe” or “at home.” I say it makes me feel safe, too.

I’m in college now, where my diet usually consists of Easy Mac and bagels and more peanut butter than I’d ever thought I’d have. But I had spaghetti a few days ago, the pasta overflowing the plate with only an ice-cream-scoop-sized mound of marinara on top. The proportions were all wrong. There were hundreds of other students around me, the music was some Katy Perry song, there was no distinct smell. The environment was all wrong. And then I took a bite, and it was good enough, but there was neither garlic nor bits of jalapeños.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a marinara snob, and I have nothing against Katy Perry. But it was one of the first culture shocks I experienced in college. I wasn’t concerned about studying or getting As, and I was only slightly concerned about making more friends, but the marinara sauce bothered me. See, I grew up with a father who spent hours upon hours poring over our thirty-year-old crockpot, with its green rim matching green leaves that swirled in quadruplets around the pot. It always reminded me of a compass, with one quadruplet pointing north, one pointing east, one south, one west. The pot would be hidden in a kitchen corner, its cream color blending in with the beige walls behind it. But Dad would take up the rest of the counter space with cutting boards and knives and ladles, ladles everywhere. Giant plastic bags of giant orange carrots would lie on the counter, as would half-sliced tomatoes and chopped-up fragments of leeks and the translucent remnants of garlic shells. But my family’s favorite were the peppers — half of the counter was filled with peppers of all colors and flavors. And sometimes the rest of my family wouldn’t even know all this was going on until “Dinner!” was called.

Our home was very tall, with high-up ceilings and four flights of stairs, so the smells and sounds never travelled much farther than the kitchen. Everything was muffled, insulated in one room, and when you were outdoors you’d have no idea what was going on indoors. You could even be in your room and all of a sudden Mom would open the door to ask a question and your room would fill up with the smell of stewing marinara. There was always an initial confusion—you’d be  perplexed as to where the smell was seeping up from—and then it’d hit you: Dad was making marinara. He was having a field day in the kitchen and you didn’t even know.

My dad used to listen to reggae while making dinner; kitchen-wise, he really only specialized in Toots & the Maytals and marinara sauce. The reggae made the marinara seem so much fuller. I find that reggae does that often; when life seems empty, just put on some Toots & the Maytals and life seems soft, rich. Or maybe this just works for me because they’ll forever be associated with my dad and his marinara. I hear the funk start and I immediately picture my suburban father (who was usually still decked out in a tie and starched white button-down) nodding his head along to the beat and dropping everything to start dancing at the parts he felt the most.

That’s what Toots & the Maytals are for me—a feeling. When the brass first blares in their album Funky Kingston, this wash of simplicity rushes over me. Life is absent when the brass plays; nothing exists but me and the brass and the marinara. My blood seems to slow down and warm up, everything is relaxing. Then “Louie Louie” picks up and my heart picks up pace solely because, even from a campus nowhere near home, I can practically hear Dad singing along to the melody under his breath, his face red and glistening from the kitchen’s rising heat, then he’s talking about how he slow-danced to this song once in college, then Mom comes in and they dance together. It’s one of my favorite daydreams: Mom and Dad slow-dancing as the living room swirls with the warmth of marinara sauce. They stop dancing when the music stops and the singer begins talking, then they start swaying when the singer’s words morph into a melody once again. I’d sit on the couch and smile up at them, just observing and feeding off of their little bubble of joy, and because of those daydreams I feel as if I’m on a first-name basis with the band. To me, they are the Toots.

The Toots and their Funky Kingston are an experience. They’re a family of different musics mixing together—reggae, soul, blues, funk. It’s an album that could never be filtered into a single category. A marinara sauce album. Songs like “In The Dark” and “Louie, Louie” and “Love Is Gonna Let Me Down” are the base of the sauce; they simmer and resonate and stop the album from becoming this hodgepodge of noises and flavors. The peppers and onions and carrots and garlic are songs like “Time Tough” and “Pomp & Pride” and “Got To Be There”; they give the album a little extra tang, bringing unexpected pops to the calm, relaxing music. Then there is “Country Road,” which makes everything feel as though it’s coming to an end—it’s the resounding last bite of the marinara.

But Funky Kingston’s last two songs, “Sailing On” and “Pressure Drop,” they’re the spices; they burst the album back to life after the slow wave of “Country Road.” They’re what you remember most. And they’re uplifting and different than the rest of the album—“Sailing On” and “Pressure Drop” are even starkly different from one another. It would be like one flavor being dominated by another, a jalapeño taking over the taste of saffron. “Sailing On” is a slow-dance type song, and “Pressure Drop” is a funky song where you could pull out the oddest dance move and nobody would care. Their flavors are just different, but the difference brings the whole album together, and even though the album is ending, the end makes you feel warm and safe, just like taking that last bite of marinara while watching your parents hug after a slow dance in a room still swirling with the warmth of marinara and Toots.

—Nicole Efford