Beating the Odds

A Bosnian War Vet in Astoria Drums Away Tragedy One-Handed

Hundreds of thousands poured into Belgrade's streets last month, torching Parliament and bringing an end to 11 years of Slobodan Milosevic's rule. But at the same time in Astoria—a hemisphere away from the outrage and tear gas—another former Yugoslavian packed up his drumsticks and headed off to band practice, thinking less of a ruler's downfall than of his upcoming gigs. (His Serbian band, Fijuci, cover Yugoslavian hits at Acme Underground December 1; his Croatian band, Awkward Beaker—literal translation of the Serbo-Croatian term for "platypus"—play original songs, in English, at Downtime December 20.)

Before the war, before he reached down and picked up a cluster bomb on Christmas Eve in 1992, Darko Jelisic was an emerging pop star. He was a lead singer then, and a competent bass player—he didn't start drumming until after he lost half his right arm. On the cover of his band Rusija's 1988 debut album, recorded when he was 18, Darko's pouty face and spiky blond hair had identified him as part of the Eastern Bloc's synth-pop new wave.

When Darko was called for Bosnian Muslim Army duty in May '92, his musical background landed him in the military orchestra and excused him from training camp. So when he was transferred from the stage into a combat unit, he was unprepared for battle—most other soldiers would have recognized the bell-shaped glint of metal on the ground that early morning. But to Darko it was just a peculiar object for inspection. When the explosion shredded his lower arm, splattering his army jacket and flaxen mane with bloody flesh, his first instinct was to reach for his gun and blow his brains out. But somehow, suddenly, he felt OK. "It was cool. It sounds strange, but it just felt cool," Darko explains through his pronounced accent. Instead of committing suicide, he walked down the packed-dirt hill to the hospital in the city. He says he yelled out to his musician friend, "Hey, find me a band for a singer with no hand."

One-and-a-half-armed bandit Darko Jelisic
photo: Cary Conover
One-and-a-half-armed bandit Darko Jelisic

"If this all happened before the war, if I had been in all of these magazines there like I am now, I'd be like, fuck New York. I'd be rich and famous. I'd be a big star. But I'm here."

The hospital staff examined the gory mess clinging to Darko's scalp and assumed he'd injured his head. In true rocker style, Darko's single request was that the doctor not trim his hair, now grown out into a heavy metal shag. Several months later, after Darko boarded a plane for Washington, the conflict had escalated to the extent that he could not return home. He wound up in a small, shared, one-bedroom apartment in Astoria—a mere closet compared to his sprawling three-bedroom Sarajevo bachelor pad. Darko was about to become an unwilling immigrant among Bosnian refugees: the group the Department of City Planning calls "the newest New Yorkers."

The only uniform Darko wears these days consists of worn Levi's 501s and blue Converse All-Stars. What sets him apart from other members of New York's rock infantry, of course, is his arm. Ending in a twist of skin a few inches below his elbow, Darko's appendage is tattooed in bold tribal swirls of black outlined in blue, with licks of red, green, and yellow weaving up from where it too abruptly ends. Darko says he can still feel his missing limb. And even though he has relied on his left hand for eight years now, he still calls himself a righty.

Late for band practice, Darko pushes past the wood-and-felt double doors of a sound studio on 26th Street. His deep blue eyes glint as he grins easily at Awkward Beaker's bassist and singer, both of whom emigrated from Croatia seven years ago. Darko fiddles with the studio drum kit, adjusting every component before finally reaching for a roll of heavy silver duct tape. Measuring a 10-inch strip, he rips it off with his teeth and wraps it vertically over his forearm. He carefully extends a drumstick beyond the lower edge of his arm, just below his elbow. "This is the most important part," he intones with uncharacteristic solemnity. "I almost broke my arm the first time I tried this. I was by myself, sitting on my bed. I had taped the stick along the top of my arm. And when I went to hit the pillow [his starter kit at the time], I almost snapped my arm in half."

He yanks length after length off the roll of tape, frenetically winding it around his arm and the stick, 25 speedy rotations in all. The ritual completed, his arm almost looks like a narwhal. Darko begins to hit the skins with a violent fervor, screwing up his face and drumming with his whole torso. He plays the stadium-rocker role to the hilt, often to the annoyance of his bandmates—who repeatedly beg him in both English and Serbo-Croatian to play softer, to slow down. But Darko has a frontman mentality, which is precisely why he plays drums: "I used to think that I could get that rush, you know, the power, only from singing on the front of the stage. But drumming is the same thing."

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