Arja says of the village school she attended:
“The school was very small and homey. My class had just three pupils. We were good in different subjects and we learned a lot from each other. Because we were so few, the classes were joined so that the first and second were together, the third and forth similarly, and so on. During the breaks we went swimming; on Shrove Tuesday we tobogganed. The cook baked pulla buns and brought them to us with juice as a snack. In fine weather we had lessons outside and when it was raining we did sums in class. Once a storm blew down a birch tree in the school yard. We made firewood from it and carried it inside.” (Nyman, p.51)
Arja comes from a musical family: her parents were both active in the church choir, and the harmonikka player Erkki Friman is Arja’s maternal uncle (The Finnish harmonikka is not a mouth organ. It is a kind of accordion, with symmetrically arranged buttons instead of piano keys. It is not the same instrument as a bandoneon).
Arja and her sister Eija (born 31 October 1963, and a very popular singer in her own right) sang with the Peräkylä Boys band in youth hostels, holiday camps, restaurants and various other places in central Finland from 1978. When the Peräkylä Boys broke up to continue their studies, Eija and Arja got a new band, Kastanja (“Chestnut”).
In 1983 Arja was admitted to the Central Finland Conservatory to study singing.
“The family was quite wonderful and treated me like their own daughter. The father acted as teacher in the agricultural school and farmed maize. On the second visit I already had a driving licence and got the use of an old pick-up. I woke up early in the morning, put on a long-sleeved shirt and drove to the edge of the field to gather corncobs. In the field I prepared and packed them in dozens in cartons, then I had a shower and drove the corncobs to the shops. I could keep the money from the sales.” (Nyman, p 54)
This is a very appropriate job for a future tango star, as the classic tango El Choclo, written by Angel Villaldo in 1903, means "the corncob". Meanwhile Kastanja became the backing group for Marjo-Riitta Nieminen, who sings under the stage name Marjorie.
In 1985 Arja enrolled in the Hämeenlinna teacher training college and qualified in 1989, specialising in Finnish language and PE.
In the spring of 1989, with the encouragement of her mother, Arja entered for the Tangomarkkinat tango singing competition. She engaged a new orchestra, Fortuna, and began to rehearse the tangos Kultaiset korvarenkaat and Vie meidät rakkauteen. These are not in fact Finnish tangos: the first is Golden Earrings, composed by Victor Young and the theme song of the film of the same name, the second is Tango d´Amour, by Leo Leandros.
After passing the preliminary heats, she did not apply for a permanent teaching post, but did apply for a temporary post in case she was not successful at the Tangomarkkinat finals.
But, dressed in a stage gown made by her sister Eija, she became Tango Queen at her first attempt and turned the Tangomarkkinat from a local festival to an event of national importance. The Tangomarkkinat organisers tried to get her to adopt the stage name Arja Karen, as koriseva means "wheezing" in Finnish.
Since then she has recorded 15 albums (up to September 2007), and appeared in concerts and at dance halls all over Finland, as well as Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Jordan, and the UK. She has sung sacred music in church concerts, and appeared with Belgian superstar Helmut Lotti. She appears frequently on Finnish TV: she has guested on the musical game show Bumtsibum several times; she and Joel Hallikainen presented the musical game show Jos sais kerran in 2002-2003; and she was the heroine in the children's programme Hilarius and Loru-Liisa, with a giant mouse. She was the Finnish voice of Pocahontas in the animated film and TV series of that name. She has appeared in the soap opera Prince of Pop and in Ready Steady Cook. She has returned to the Tangomarkkinat several times as judge, and presented it in 1991, 1994, and 2004. The spectacular Eyes of an Angel concert of 1999 was broadcast on national TV. She has attempted four times to represent Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest (1991, 1992, 1993, 2004), but has never been selected.
She has also appeared on stage: she was Liza in "My Fair Lady" and Maria in "Sound of Music". The run of the latter had to be cut short because Arja was 8 months pregnant: it made no difference to the story.
Arja met her future husband Juha-Pekka Karmala in 1985, when they were both studying at Hämeenlinna college. At the time they were both going out with other people, and they did not get together until Juha-Pekka moved to Jyväskylä to study special needs teaching. They were engaged in 1993 and married on 20 July 1996. Their children are: Patrik (born 5 August 1995), Karla Sol Angel (born 20 July 2001 in Colombia, adopted), and Verna Luna Gunilla (born 8 November 2006). The pair are very protective of their children's privacy, and never talk about them to the papers or allow their photographs to be published.
Arja is a modern made-up Finnish name. It first appears in Eino Leino´s poem Arja and Selinä of 1916; but the Arja in the poem is a boy. The Finns soon decided that Arja was more suitable as a girl's name. The -a ending is of no significance: the Finnish language has no genders, not even for people. There is a Russian name, variously transliterated as Arija, Arja, and Ara, which is a variant of Ariadne. Arja was most popular as a girl's name between 1940 and 1965. Other famous Arjas from this period are Arja Saijonmaa (b. 1944), Arja Havakka (b. 1944), and Arja Sipola (b. 1956).
Arja Koriseva's records issued up to September 2007: