Plane crash changes meaning of a joyful song

When he recorded the song "El Avion," Dominican merengue star Kinito Mendez was singing of sheer joy -- the thrill of flying home for Christmas, of saving money all year for a blissful month of food and rum, dancing and family. It's such a specific experience, so firmly etched in the Dominican consciousness, that he mentioned the most popular flight from the United States.

"The plane has arrived," he sang. "Flight number 587, direct to Santo Domingo."


That number is infamous now, forever linked to the American Airlines flight that crashed last Monday in New York. And, just as suddenly, "El Avion" has taken on added significance. For many, the coincidence is too compelling to ignore. Record stores that cater to Boston's huge Dominican community, for example, are reporting a massive demand for the song.

For others, "El Avion" is too painful to play, its jubilant lyrics at odds with overwhelming sadness. La Mega, a Boston Spanish-language station, has stopped playing the song, said disc jockey and program director Miguel Espinal. "It's a very happy song," he said. "It was. Now, I don't want to hear it."


When "El Avion" (Spanish for "The Airplane") started playing on the radio every November, it was a sign that Christmas season had come, Espinal said. He translates, loosely, the words that accompany the soaring horns and pulsing merengue beat.

"It's full of hope, happiness, and gifts from the people who come," Espinal says. The song describes a man who brings seven suitcases on the flight but still doesn't have room for all of the gifts he's carrying. It promises "a spicy Christmas, like in times before."

Mendez said he wrote the song faster than any others. He conceived it at a friend's birthday party in 1995 and finished it the next day. "I wanted to write a song that would unite Dominicans living outside the country and those living inside" the Caribbean island nation, he said by telephone from Miami, where he is promoting his latest album.

Flight 587 was a natural symbol, Mendez said. It's popular with islanders, whose relatives pack the Santo Domingo airport, turning their wait into a celebration. "That flight was always full. That's why I wrote it arrives 'stuffed with luggage and packages,' " he said.

Espinal remembers the scene well, the shots of rum and the live music. They stand in stark contrast to the most recent images from the airport: distraught people waiting for loved ones who would never come.

Espinal's station, WAMG-AM, has taken calls about the crash on its morning show, connected with a 24-hour news station for constant updates, and taken some of its most cheerful songs off the air. "We're trying to go away from the songs that mention Santo Domingo and happiness," Espinal said.

But some think "El Avion" could serve as a tribute to those lost. "The song is a form of endearment to that flight; it's an homage," said teacher Luis de los Santos, who comes from Bani, a city outside Santo Domingo where many of the victims were headed. Even before Monday's crash, he said, "that flight number had become a kind of myth for Dominicans."

In some ways, that myth has grown stronger.


Ernesto Pena, assistant manager at Franklin's CDs in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, was reeling from the strangeness this past week. "Think about it: You write a song about a flight. Then [a few] years later, it crashes. It's weird," he said.

His customers seem to agree. Since Monday, people have flooded the store, looking for Merenboom Navideno Vol. 2, the 1997 Christmas album on which "El Avion" appears, with guest vocals from merengue star Johnny Ventura. Franklin's CDs sold its three remaining copies Monday night and has ordered 50 more, said owner Franklin Cabral.

Mendez said he may join with other Dominican artists to give a concert honoring the dead, and may change the words to "El Avion" to take into account the tragedy. "I am open to doing whatever is possible," he said.

The increased record sales, though, hardly bring him happiness. "I can't think about that," he said. "I never thought of taking advantage of it."