by Kristin & Vince Cosentino
We all follow our own unique path in life, but few people’s paths take them across three continents and culminate in Fresno, California. Musician Pieter Moerdyk’s did. He has spent five decades following his love of music wherever it may lead, and it has led him to some remarkable places.
Moerdyk’s musical odyssey began in his native South Africa when he saw a preview for the Elvis movie King Creole. “That’s the first time I saw Elvis Presley,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to be and so I started wanting to play the guitar.” His mother got him guitar lessons and “then that killed the interest right there, when I found that you actually have to work and practice and stuff.”
Moerdyk was sent to a boarding school where new students had to participate in the New Boys Concert–an initiation of sorts in which the new boys performed and the others made fun of them. Pieter was glad he’d had those earlier lessons. “I borrowed a guitar, sang a song and they didn’t ridicule me, they really liked it…and all of a sudden I was a popular guy.” After that success, he and another boy formed a folk duo. “I wasn’t an athlete by any means,” Moerdyk says, “and I wasn’t an academic. I really had nothing going for me, but when I started playing music; all of a sudden girls started noticing us. So that’s what got me started.”
After he finished school, Moerdyk found that “playing music was so much more fun than actually working.” He spent two years playing in resorts where, for room and board, he would perform in the evenings. “That was a lot of fun. All of the families would come with their young daughters.” From South Africa, Moerdyk traveled to London and played street music and then he spent two years in Paris “playing music in cafés, on the street, in the subways, everywhere…and it was a blast. Two great years!”
After Paris, he went to New York, where he almost scored a record deal and recorded some music in a studio. “But once I started seeing the people I was going to have to deal with,” he says, “I took my tapes, absconded in the middle of the night and came to San Francisco.” He played in San Francisco for two years and then, after a stint back in South Africa, where he married and had a baby, he moved to Fresno and he’s lived and played music in Fresno ever since. About four years ago he switched from guitar to ukulele, which is what he predominantly plays now.
Moerdyk’s musical tastes have changed over the years. “I used to write songs that were kind of dark and intense,” he says, such as his song, “One Man Firing Squad,” which can be found on YouTube. “I used to write political satires. I was very passionate about putting my point of view in songs.”
But that all changed when he took up the ukulele, when “all of a sudden I started getting a taste for pop songs, especially old pop songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Songs my parents liked.” And he finds that his motives for playing are different now as well. “I don’t want to change the world,” he says, “I just really want to be the life and soul of the party. I want to make people happy. I want to see them tapping their feet.”
And even though he plays cover material, Moerdyk definitely puts his own spin on it. “It’s 90% me,” he says. “Like when I play ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ it’s absolutely nothing like Simon and Garfunkel do it.” It’s not that he doesn’t like or respect the original. “It’s just that I can’t play their version. If I try to imitate somebody…it still comes out exactly the way I play it. I just play everything my own way.”
Moerdyk currently plays all over Fresno. He plays every Friday night at Sierra Nut House in the Villagio Shopping Center and at Dusty Buns Bistro on Thursdays. And he loves open mic nights. He performs at Mia Cuppa Caffé on Mondays and at Roger Perry’s open mic at Audie’s Olympic Tavern on Tuesdays. For those who simply want to hear his music, he is an active presence on You Tube, where his music is featured in dozens of videos.
Moerdyk also plays at senior centers, and the music he plays at those places isn’t what you might expect. “When I started playing in old people’s homes,” he says, “[the people] were really old, but now they’re only about ten to twenty years older than me. I used to play ‘Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Now it’s Credence Clearwater and the early Beatles. These are what the people want to hear.”
And what drives Pieter Moerdyk to keep playing? “It keeps me alive,” he says. “Without being able to play music I would die.” He also seems to enjoy the challenge, saying, “When we choose our passion, it’s not necessarily something that we’re good at. Playing a musical instrument and singing, that’s always been a little bit difficult, and it’s something that I improve at. It’s like if someone just puts you on top of the mountain, I mean, it’s OK, but if you have to climb it, getting to the top is a whole different thing.”