The Sage of U Street

Article excerpt

Musician Sage Ali is so serene he could flop over at any minute.

Stretching his long legs in a chair, the District native and a son of the Ben's Chili Bowl family has been getting a lot of attention lately around town. Last week, Mr. Ali, who now lives in Los Angeles, returned to Ben's, a Northwest institution on U Street, to promote his debut CD, "Not From Around Here."

He's been interviewed by major print news organizations, local Pacifica Radio station WPFW and the Voice of America. He's had old friends come up to him on the street and ooze with pride over him.

He just seems glad it's done. With 12 song and six interludes, "Not From Around Here" took 10 years to write, arrange, produce, mix and record. ("It's been in my head my whole life," he says, almost as a matter of fact.) While the CD was being recorded, a close friend of Mr. Ali's died of a drug-related suicide, and his recording engineer and close friend was robbed in the studio at gunpoint.

Nevertheless, the CD reflects an easy-on-the ears optimism that is sure to be Mr. Ali's trademark. Released by Beverly Hills, Calif.-based AOM Records, it features titles such as "Love Revolution," "Communication" and "Smiling and Dancing."

"It's definitely got the free spiritedness," says his youngest brother, Nizam, "being true to himself, not conforming to what other in the music industry wants.

"[He] likes to bring out the best in his family, and bring out the best in people. This is a way for him to make his mark, more than being a superstar. He's not going for the fame or glory or prestige. He just wants to give back to people."

Mr. Ali himself waxes philosophic about the CD, calling it "uplifting" and "happy blend" of rhythm and blues, pop, hip-hop and jazz. Now, however, the smiling and dancing are just beginning. Mr. Ali faces the cold reality of the music business: Getting the CD into stores.

"Can you put that it's in Tower Records?" says his sister-in-law, Vida Ali, Sage's publicist. "And do you put Web sites in [stories]?"

Mr. Ali will even spell out the Web site address for you - ( His sister-in-law laughs that that's become a joke among his compadres, but the musician is serious.

"It's not in all the stores," Mr. Ali says in a soft cadence, yet underscoring his intensity about the matter. "I want folks to at least have some way to let them know of its availability."

Wearing a blue baseball cap turned backward, the tall, neatly goateed Mr. Ali exudes calmness. He chooses his words carefully, often punctuating sentences with the phrase, "It's funny."

"I call him the motivationist of the family," Nizam Ali says. "He's free spirited and always talks about thinking in terms of what you want to do do and not to be constrained. He's the one who actually got me to go to law school.

"We always joke that he should be a cult leader he's so motivational."

Mr. Ali's confidence is bolstered by an early introduction to martial arts, including karate, kung fu and capoeira, (a combination of martial arts and African music) which he says steered him away from drug and alcohol abuse.

He played in bands throughout high school and also kept a straight-A average. Mr. Ali went to Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he designed his own "mesh" of a major: psychology, parapsychology, physics, metaphysics, astronomy, philosophy and religion. …