Sleng Teng: How a Japanese woman influenced Jamaica’s reggae

A musical revolution in Jamaica has a connection with a bouncy rhythm from a portable electronic keyboard that’s the brainchild of a Japanese woman.

The pattern that resonates in the 1985 reggae hit by Wayne Smith, “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” came from Casiotone MT-40, which went on sale in 1981, the first product Hiroko Okuda worked on after joining the Tokyo-based company behind G-Shock watches.

“It’s really like my first child, and the child turned out so well it’s outright moving,” said Okuda, honored as “the mother of Sleng Teng” among the hard-core reggae aficionados.

Sleng Teng is a form of digital Jamaican music that began in the mid-1980s, part of the rich repertoire of the disco-like genre called “dancehall.” No one contests the key role played by artists like Smith and King Jammy, as well as the humble, battery-operated, $150 MT-40.

One of the rhythm patterns Okuda created called “rock” on the MT-40 evolved into “Sleng Teng riddim.”

As legend goes, Noel Davey, the Grammy-winning keyboard player for the Marley Brothers, got an MT-40 from a friend, who picked it up in California. Before, Davey was blowing into a Melodica portable keyboard for that sound.

Davey was toying around with the MT-40 and chanced upon the beat that’s in Smith’s megahit “Under Mi Sleng Teng.”

And the rest is history, so to speak.

“You don’t plan,” Davey said, when asked about that moment.

There are so many buttons on the MT-40, he was “fooling…


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