Campus Characters: Staff-spinning senior talks aspirations and travel


Helen Fernandez

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Jesse Crandell spins a wooden staff on South Mall. Crandell is a musician and a licensed massage therapist who also studies Hispanic linguistics at UT.

Sam Hays

Jesse Crandell perfects his craft every Tuesday and Thursday on the South Mall lawn. Crandell spins a wooden staff around his body, sometimes flourishing behind his back, but never losing focus.

Crandell, 34, is a Hispanic Linguistics and Portuguese senior at UT. Although he was born in South Carolina, he grew up mostly in Vermont and Illinois. At age 17, he dropped out of high school and lived on his own as a musician. Later, he decided to get his GED so that he could get a degree in music. In 2002, Crandell graduated from Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. with a degree in music performance. 

As far as the staff spinning is concerned, Crandell said there is no official name for what he does, but he practices it every day. 

Crandell’s gestures, steps and even his words are succinct and deliberate — efficient to a fault. A man of medium height, Crandell walks with an innate dexterity — a visual manifestation of the kung fu training on which his staff spinning is based.

“It’s a combat form,” Crandell said. “But the whole philosophy isn’t to learn how to hurt people [but to learn] how to defend the peace. The real master avoids the conflict altogether.”

The philosophy behind the staff spinning, and kung fu allows Crandell to draw a meditative benefit from what he does. He says it’s relaxing but also practical. He says, if he’s coming from a Spanish class and has to switch gears and think and speak in Portuguese for the next hour, spinning the staff is the equivalent of wiping the slate clean.

“I can forget everything,” Crandell said. “I can just start fresh.”

Crandell gained his appreciation and interest in Spanish and Portuguese from his musicianship. He’s been a musician since he was a teenager, and his musical interests span from playing Nirvana and Metallica covers in his adolescence to playing in a touring bluegrass band in his twenties.

“I’ve been a musician for a long time and was kind of searching,” Crandell said. “When you realize you can’t play everything and learn every song you love, you think, ‘OK, I’ve gotta pick a direction. I’ve gotta focus, so I can build something progressive.’”

Now, he plays with Austin Samba, one of the oldest samba schools in the country. Crandell plays surdo, a giant bass drum, and is learning the djembe.

“I think the language is equally beautiful [as the music],” Crandell said. “They developed alongside one another. Neither developed independently.”

Through Austin Samba, Crandell met Abou Sylla, a percussion teacher from Guinea, a small country in West Africa.

“I met Jesse when he was playing the guitar,” Sylla said. “He saw me playing the djembe and said he’d like to play the djembe, too, so that’s when I start teaching him how to play.”

Sylla took a class of his students, including Crandell, to Guinea over the winter break. Crandell said he dove deeper into his instrument while in Guinea and witnessed firsthand what Sylla did for his people and their community. The money for the trip went to people in Sylla’s home village. They brought bikes to transport water. The year before, Sylla brought food and money to give to his family members and neighbors. 

“We didn’t go anywhere in the three weeks I was there where he didn’t give money or food to someone,” Crandell said. “We need more people like [Sylla] in this world.”

Crandell’s interest in Afro-Latin cultures has brought him all over the world, including England, Jamaica, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Guinea. For many of these trips, he applied for scholarships and studied abroad. He’s currently applying for a Fulbright scholarship so that he can further his travels and become more involved in international relations. 

To support his pursuits, Crandell is a licensed massage therapist. On top of all of this, Crandell is a UT Service Scholar, often participating in community development projects around Austin.

To balance his myriad interests and passions, Crandell searches for and puts effort into things he truly loves, allowing him to make time for everything. 

“Every day I’m doing homework, I’m practicing music,” Crandell said. “I meditate. I exercise. I garden. These are just part of my daily routine. Above all, I enjoy doing them, so there’s an automatic appeal there. It helps me not lose my mind.”