When Balinese musician and dancer I Nyoman Wenten first came to the United States in the 1970s, with the mission of spreading the gospel of Balinese gamelan music, it was still a relatively obscure tradition.
All these years later, gamelan has become one of the more well-known of non-Western musical forms. One of the most popular world music recordings came last year with the release of the three-CD package "The Bali Sessions," produced by the Grateful Dead's drummer and multicultural music enthusiast Mickey Hart.
Wenten, who has led Burat Wangi, the gamelan ensemble based at California Institute of the Arts, since 1976, has seen the number of U.S.-based gamelan ensembles grow from only a few to about 250. He has been partly responsible for the shift through the CalArts-based gamelan program, which has become a primary force in the music's promotion and advancement.
Burat Wangi, a group of 25 musicians, will give a special music and dance concert Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center, the final event of a concert series co-sponsored with CalArts-based music groups. Dancer Nanik Wenten, I Nyoman's wife and a teacher at CalArts, will also perform at the Skirball.
Gamelan music, whether accompanying dance and puppet-oriented "shadow plays" or on its own, plays a central role in the fabric of life in Bali.
"The whole Balinese society is interwoven with religious ceremonies, music and dance," Wenten said. "Every day, you can hear the music everywhere."
In the Skirball program, Burat Wangi will perform works from the relatively modern form of gamelan, Gong Kebyar, which dates to the early 20th century. There will be music from the Balinese shadow play "Mahabarata" and examples of the distinctive Balinese vocal tradition of "monkey chants," or "kecak."
The intrigue with gamelan music has come through a circuitous route. American composers such as Lou Harrison, Steve Reich and Philip Glass have been heavily influenced by Indonesian music and have drawn Western ears to Bali and Java.
Wenten's ensemble, which usually performs at least once a year at the CalArts Spring Festival, has been appearing with greater regularity in the area. Last fall, it was heard during the large-scale Festival of World Sacred Music and in a collaboration with the Rhapsody in Taps dance troupe at the Japan America Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
This summer, the ensemble and Rhapsody in Taps will perform in Bali during Wenten's annual pilgrimage.
"I always recharge my batteries by going back to Bali," Wenten said. "I listen and perform, back and forth. Every summer I do that. Learning is a lifelong process."
Burat Wangi Balinese Gamelan and Dance Group performs Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets: $12 general admission, $10 for Skirball members and $8 for students. (323) 655-8587.