Inti-Illimani's first chords at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center brought waves of smiles through the capacity audience Tuesday night as the pulsating rhythms of South American guitars, panpipes and percussion seemed to wash away the cares of the day.

The eight-member band -- formed in the 1960s by engineering students in Chile who ended up in exile in Italy for 14 years -- is dedicated to exploring indigenous South American cultures, reflected in its diverse body of work and extensive collection of winds, strings and percussion.

The impossibly small tiple (12-string Colombian guitar), Ecuadorean rondadors (a type of panpipe), Peruvian cajon (wooden percussion box), soprano saxophone and traditional violin are just some of the array of instruments Inti-Illimani uses. But to appreciate the music you need only to open your ears to the simple melodies and driving rhythms.

"She Came From the Sea" is the sort of achingly beautiful serenade heard under one's balcony, with tenderly blended unison vocals and delicate plucked guitar strings. "Dear Nino," a homage to Italian film composer Nino Rota, was composed in the band's Italian years, weaving Gypsy sounds of flute, clarinet and violin with guitar -- a European twist to the Latin American sound. In contrast, the second half opened with a trio of wooden flutes and percussion, sounding like a fife-and-drum corps before dissolving into a gentler cadence.

The concert was a presentation of the Clarice Smith Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society.

-- Gail Wein